On Friday night, the last game in a long, seven-game road trip, it was if he had returned, out of the deep, dark pit of injuries and surgeries and coming up short. It is common knowledge in Vancouver that Ryan Kesler has not been the same since what is his best NHL season to date, in 2010-11. To say that his ‘beastmode,’ seen in the second round of the 2011 playoffs against the Nashville Predators in which he had five goals in seven games, has been missed by the Canucks is an understatement. Well now, under the tenure of John Tortorella and with some new line mates, an inkling of the old Kesler crept through in the Canucks’ road trip.
Kesler claimed at the beginning of the season that now he is 100% healthy, that he has no excuses (in terms of injuries) for not playing up to the standards set for him. He was quiet for the first six games in which he centred the second line; the buzz in Vancouver was that another mediocre, uneventful year was to be expected from Kesler. But that was just the first six games.
The last seven games, all on the road, have been different. The road trip opened with Kesler scoring two goals, including the game winner, against the Philadelphia Flyers and ended with Kesler again scoring two goals, including the game winner, against St. Louis. The difference maker? Tortorella has put Kesler on the top line with the Sedins.
“I have never played with them,” Kesler told the Vancouver Sun of the Sedins. “I have played with them on the power play but that’s a lot different. I have my role there and it’s fun. They are always looking to get you the puck and they are so good with it. They open up the ice a lot for me, and we have been successful so far.”
Kesler likes to shoot the puck (and is very good at it) and the Sedins are elite passers and play-makers; it makes sense as to why this line is successful.
“Playing with those two guys (Henrik and Daniel) you definitely have to be ready to shoot,” Kesler said. “You guys know I like to shoot and it gives me more opportunities to do that.”
Thirteen games into the season, and the Sedins have already played with several different players of different calibres, such as Jannik Hansen. Both of Hansen’s goals this season were assisted on solely by the Sedins, who seem able to bring out the best in almost anybody. Throughout this, the Sedins have remained fairly consistent and dominant. Henrik has only one pointless game, and they have lately been playing around 25 minutes a game. The Sedins think highly of Kesler as well.
“I think his shot is top in the league, he is going to be able to use that a lot,” Daniel Sedin told the Vancouver Sun prior to his first game on a line with Kesler. “I think it is going to open up things for us if he can use that shot early on in shifts. It is going to make the D back up and open up things for us.”
As well as playing with the Sedins, Kesler is playing on the wing instead of centre, which, along with playing with some great passers, gives him more opportunities to shoot the puck.
“I just look at him as a winger,” Tortorella told the Vancouver Sun. “I like to have that big body on the boards, I think it forces him to play in the areas that he needs to play in. I think he gets more shots off the wing, I think it takes away some of the one-on-one stuff that is out of our game and he has really concentrated on that and not try to do it himself. So right now we will keep him there and see where it goes.”
Against the St. Louis Blues on Friday, Kesler displayed his ability to shoot, scoring a goal in the high slot off of a pass from Mike Santorelli. He then went on to score the overtime goal during a power play, a backhand shot from right in front of goalie’s crease. He was dominant throughout the game, one in which the Canucks dressed a multitude of fourth-liners, two AHL call-ups, (one of whom was making his NHL debut), and a defender as a forward to make up the third and fourth lines.
In seven games played mostly on the wing with the Sedins, Kesler has six of his seven goals and three assists. He has improved statistically in terms of defence as well, going from a minus-5 in his games played as centre on the second line to a plus-3 in his games on the wing with the Sedins.
“We all know my last year wasn’t spectacular by any means,” Kesler said. “It took me some games to get my feet under me again and really get my confidence back up there. This trip definitely helped me a lot.”
Hopefully the old Kesler, the one that can just switch on that ‘beastmode’ for each game, is back. Of course, this could just be a phase. This could be the best Kesler ever gets again, and with Alex Burrows soon returning to the lineup, Kesler might not remain on the top line. But then again, this could be the beginning of the return of the Kesler that dominated the Canucks’ playoff series against the Nashville Predators back in 2011. Only time can tell.
“It’s coming,” said Kesler. “I feel like I have been playing well. You always think you can improve. I am just going to keep riding this.”