Behind The Bench: Ryan Kesler
Born: August 31, 1984
Wt: 202 lbs
Draft: 23rd Overall in 2003
Plays for: The Vancouver Canucks, Center, Shoots Right
Jersey No: #17
Regular Season: 484 GP – 131 G – 157 A – 288 P
Playoffs: 48 GP – 10 G – 23 A – 33 P
Anytime a discussion breaks out about the Vancouver Canucks, you can be sure that a few things will dominate the discussion. Engaging debates about the forty-year drought, the progress of the Sedin Twins and Robert Luongo have, for the most part, not changed in the last few years. However, the same cannot be said about Ryan Kesler.
Kesler’s assets, particularly his competitiveness, speed, physicality, willingness to block shots and proficiency in the face-off circle, compelled the Vancouver Canucks to draft him 23rd overall in 2003. Kesler played his first NHL game on November 24, 2003 against the Toronto Maple Leafs; he had one shot in 12:12 of ice time. He scored his first goal 5 days later, on November 29, 2003, against Calgary Flames backup goaltender Jamie McLennan. Kesler went on to split the rest of the 03/04 season between the Canucks and their AHL Affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.
Early on in his NHL career, Kesler was known as a trash-talking agitator (“tell Kelly I said Hi!”) who was willing to engage opposing skaters between plays. Bench boss Marc Crawford primarily played Kesler against opposing top lines and in penalty killing situations, where Kesler showcased his prowess as a shutdown forward. It wasn’t until Alain Vigneault took over as Canucks head coach and General Manager Dave Nonis matched a Philadelphia offer sheet that Kesler had signed on September 12, 2006, that the forward was given a more offensive role. Unfortunately, he was limited to 48 games due to injuries.
Known as a defensive specialist for the first few years of his career, the 08/09 season marked Kesler’s offensive breakthrough. Kesler spent a majority of the season flanking the Canucks newly formed second line with off-season acquisition C/LW Pavol Demitra and mid-season free agent signing C Mats Sundin. Kesler reached career bests in goals (26), assists (33), and points (59). With his increased point total and continued defensive prowess, Kesler earned league-wide recognition with his first Selke Trophy nomination as the NHL’s best defensive forward; he placed third in voting behind C Mike Richards and C/LW Pavel Datsyuk. He helped lead the Canucks to the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference; the Canucks swept the St. Louis Blues in the Conference Quarterfinals but subsequently fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in 6 games.
Meanwhile, Kesler’s offensive game continued to flourish under Alain Vigneault. He set new career highs in assists (50) and points (75) during the 09/10 season while centering the second line with LW Mason Raymond, LW/RW Michael Grabner and RW Mikael Samuelsson.
Kesler was among several Canucks who received the opportunity to represent their national teams at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Kesler showcased to the world why he was chosen among players like Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, and Patrick Kane to represent the USA. Kesler scored twice in the tournament, including a timely goal in the gold medal game against Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo. USA fell short of a gold medal. An overtime goal by C Sydney Crosby left Kesler and his teammates with the bitter taste of silver.
The Canucks finished the 09/10 season by placing third in the Western Conference for a second consecutive season. Opened the 2010 playoffs by ousting the Los Angeles Kings in 6 games, the Canucks were again eliminated again by their rivals and eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The 6 game series against the Blackhawks saw Ryan Kesler and other Canuck skaters lose their focus and composure. On a positive note, Kesler placed second in voting for the Selke Trophy behind Pavel Datsyuk.
With another early playoff exit, Kesler had a chance to reflect on his disappointing season. Though he posted career highs in assists and points, he also posted a career high in penalty minutes (109), lost his composure, and failed to elevate his game at the most important time of the year; his game needed to change. Kesler came into the 10/11 season a new player, having spent the off-season training and working on making his wrist shot one of the best in the league. The feisty forward also matured considerably, vowing to play the game whistle-to-whistle. By the 41st game of the season, Kesler had 23 goals, 17 assists and was named to the 2011 All-Star team for the first time in his career; he was later named an alternate captain for Team Staal. Kesler went on to finish the season with 73 points and a +24 plus/minus, and set a new career high in goals (41); he placed 4th in the league for goals scored. Kesler’s great season helped the Vancouver Canucks set new franchise records in wins (54) and points (117), en route to their first ever President’s Trophy. The team would receive home-ice advantage through the entire playoffs.
The 10/11 Playoffs was a microcosm of Kesler’s 7 year NHL career, which has seen him be a defensive specialist, an offensive dynamo and a ‘heart and soul’ leader. In the first round, the Canucks slayed their bitter rival, the Chicago Blackhawks, in 7 games. This was due, in large part, to Kesler showcasing the shutdown ability that got him into the league. He held the scoring duo of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to 2 goals through the entire series; Toews’s only goal, a short-handed marker with under two minutes remaining in regulation in the seventh game, was scored while Kesler was not on the ice. Kesler exceeded expectations in the second round against Nashville; wowing fans and critics alike with his outstanding play, he almost single-handedly took the Canucks to their third Western Conference Final appearance in franchise history. Kesler was in on 11 of the 14 goals the Canucks scored against Nashville, posting 5 goals and 6 assists in 6 games, and was widely considered to be a contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Kesler took a step back from the spotlight during the WCF against the San Jose Sharks but prevailed with late game heroics in game 5. After leaving the ice with what appeared to be a groin injury, Kesler returned to tip in the game tying goal with 14 seconds remaining in regulation. This set the stage for the series clinching double overtime goal by Kevin Bieska. The Canucks carried their momentum to the Stanley Cup Finals, taking a commanding 2-0 lead against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins rebounded and went on to win the series in seven games. After the loss, Kesler was reluctant to discuss his physical health, hewing to the well-established sports maxim that injuries are not an excuse:
“I’m not going to sit here and complain about injuries”
“I was out there. I gave it everything I had tonight and I’m proud of that, I’m proud of the guys that were in this dressing room. It’s disappointing, but we are going to stick together through this one.”
“I gave it everything I’ve got and I can walk out saying it didn’t happen. It’s tough, obviously, it’s emotional, it’s tough to talk about right now, but for me, for a lot of guys in this room, we can hold our heads up high.”
“It’s Game 7, no excuses, you’ve got to lay it out there. We laid it out there, we gave everything we had … I’m a leader on this team and I did everything I possibly could. I can hold my head up high but it hurts. It definitely hurts right now”
It was later revealed that Kesler had been playing through the SCF with a torn groin and hip labrum.
Kesler has evolved from a trash-talking, agitating, shutdown forward into one of the best two-way forwards in the game today. His defensive prowess and offensive capabilities make him a dangerous forward in all areas of the ice. He can snap a deadly wrister from the top of the circle, steal the puck in the neutral zone and force defenders back with his speed, and win key face-offs on the penalty kill. Ryan Kesler is the type of player that all teams want but few have. Hard as they try to suggest otherwise, fans are envious that they do not have a versatile player of this caliber.
Behind The Bench appears Monday to Friday only on puckpuckgoose.com.
Edited by: Aneil Parashar