Jeff Paterson: Guess who's back
Ryan Kesler's back.
It’s hard to know exactly where the Vancouver Canucks will benefit most from the return to the line-up of Ryan Kesler.
But within seconds of Tuesday night’s puck drop with the New York Rangers in town, the Canucks will be happy to start gauging all of the ways the reigning Selke Trophy winner can impact hockey games.
And perhaps the area that will benefit most from Kesler’s return is the penalty kill - a hallmark of the Canucks’ success in their record-setting season of a year ago - particularly early in hockey games.
With Kesler sidelined for the first five games of the season recovering from summer surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip, the Canucks penalty killing hasn’t looked nearly as aggressive as it did last season when one of the best in the business was using his speed and power to pressure pointmen all over the ice.
With Kesler on the shelf, the Canucks have given up six power play goals in their first five games of the season. A year ago at this same juncture, the Canucks had held opponents to just three power play goals.
Admittedly, it’s a small sample size early in the season. But already having suffered a pair of one-goal setbacks (games in which Pittsburgh and Philadelphia each scored twice on the power play), it shows the importance of every goal given up and the difference a single goal can make in a hockey game.
Perhaps of more concern than the goals given up though is the fact the team has been short-handed 25 times (an average of five times per game compared to the team’s average of 3.80 last season) and even more telling is that 14 of the 25 short-handed situations have come in the first periods of Canucks games. Through five games this season, the Canucks have had to kill 14 first period penalties and have enjoyed only four power plays of their own. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Canucks have yet to lead a game this season after one period of play.
By playing a man short so often that early in hockey games the Canucks have been back on their heels, forced to weather early storms, have been unable to get all of their players into the rhythm of the contests and have struggled to set the tone and tempo in games because they’ve been short-handed. As well, the players who have been thrown into the early penalty killing roles are expending a lot of energy that would be better used later in games.
And until Sami Salo wired a slap shot past Devan Dubnyk in the first period in Edmonton on Saturday night, the Canucks had watched as their opponents had opened the scoring in the first four outings of the year. The Vancouver Canucks were an unbelievable 41-2-6 when they opened the scoring last season – but to get on the scoreboard first, they need better starts to hockey games.
And that’s where Ryan Kesler comes in.
Kesler won’t wave a magic wand and make all of the Canucks early-game problems disappear. But the 27-year-old Livonia, Michigan native’s return addresses many of the concerns. With an aggressive style, Kesler generally takes the play to opponents instead of sitting back and letting the play come to him.
As such, he has demonstrated an ability over the years to draw penalties instead of taking them. Among the most responsible forwards in the league in his own end, Kesler should help relieve pressure at times which may keep himself or teammates out of the penalty box. And a 41-goal scorer a year ago, Kesler represents the possibility of providing an offensive spark on every shift. His return to the line-up means opponents now must scheme to defend against both Kesler’s line and the Canucks’ top line.
And on those occasions when the Canucks find themselves in penalty problems - and they will still take penalties with Kesler back in their line-up - Alain Vigneault once again has a weapon at his disposal that most coaches in the National Hockey League would love to have.
Kesler wins face-offs, has learned to read and anticipate plays and with his quickness can close gaps and force opponents to hurry their plays which more often than not leads to mistakes. And if that’s not enough, Kesler also possesses the ability to provide offense while thinking defense – three of his goals last season came while short-handed.
With two wins and a shootout loss in their first five games of the season, the Vancouver Canucks haven’t played up to the level they demonstrated most nights a year ago. But maybe that’s to be expected without the heart and soul of the hockey club relegated to the role of interested observer.
But Ryan Kesler has the green light to return to the line-up for the first time this season, and just like that, the Canucks should be considerably better early in hockey games.
Some have questioned the Canucks’ focus off the opening face-off in games so far this season. The insertion of Ryan Kesler into the line-up should get the attention of his teammates and help in that regard.
And the hope is also that with Kesler in the line-up, opponents will have to focus more on the Vancouver Canucks than the other way around.