VANCOUVER – For all the talk coming in about Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin blocking shots and killing penalties, John Tortorella's boldest move as new coach of the Vancouver Canucks involves moving Selke Trophy-winning center Ryan Kesler to the right wing.
It's a move Kesler, who won the Selke in 2011, bristled at in the past, but one that's hard to argue with given his current success.
After recording one goal and no assists in his first six games playing primarily as a center, Kesler scored six times and added three assists while moving to the wing during the Canucks' recently completed seven-game road trip. He finished the team's longest trip of the season with two goals against the St. Louis Blues, including the overtime winner, and has four goals and three assists during a four-game point streak.
"It's easy to play with a couple guys like that," Kesler, who last played wing for an estimated 30 or 40 games alongside Mats Sundin in 2008-09, said of the Sedins. "They are obviously future Hall of Famers, and the way they play took a little while to get used to, but I am enjoying it."
Kesler fired 35 shots on goal during the seven-game road trip after hitting the net 19 times in his first six games -- and nine of those came during a 6-2 romp over the Edmonton Oilers in Vancouver's home opener. He averaged two shots in his other five games as a center, but is averaging five per game since playing more on right wing.
"I don't think it's much different," Kesler said. "When you play with a couple of guys that get you pucks so much and in good areas to shoot, it makes the game a lot easier. Playing with the twins, they definitely get me the puck and I just shoot more, that's the thing."
Even as a center, Kesler has always been more of a power forward than a pure playmaker. He didn't take well to past suggestions from former coach Alain Vigneault that he needed to use his wings more but appears to be on board, at least publicly, with the move by Tortorella, who said on the trip he always saw Kesler as a winger.
"I'm older, more mature, and I feel good," Kesler said. "It's a change, yeah, but I welcome it. Whatever helps the team."
Tortorella said the move plays to Kesler's strengths.
"It puts him on the boards, it puts him in areas he needs to play in. I just like the big body," Tortorella said before the game Monday against the Washington Capitals, making sure to praise Kesler's play even before the switch. "He did a lot of little things even though he wasn't scoring at that time. We put a high emphasis on protecting pucks in all areas of the ice and I think he's done a really good job, not only in the offensive zone but also in our end zone and in the neutral zone as far as the battles and protecting that. This [move] puts him in a much better position to be there."
On the wing, Kesler no longer has to work to create his own space to release a wrist shot he spent the summer working on with a private instructor. Opponents keyed on that shot ever since it keyed his 41-goal season in 2011. Now the Sedins help buy him time.
"I just gotta move without the puck and get myself open," Kesler said.
Now he just has to stay healthy playing more minutes than ever.
Injuries have played a role, especially on the extended road trip, but Tortorella is living up to his reputation for leaning on top players, with the Sedins right behind Crosby and Kesler among forwards on the list of NHL ice time leaders. All three Canucks forwards are averaging more than 22 minutes a game, and Kesler's average of 22 minutes and 32 seconds is more than two minutes above his previous season high of 20:29, set during that Selke-winning season in 2011.
Kesler's minutes are even more staggering over the last five games, including a regular season career-high 28:04 against the New York Islanders on Oct. 22, surpassing his old mark by more than a minute and a half. He averaged almost 25 minutes in the last five games, and has already played over 23 minutes five times -- and 22:55 in another game -- this season, a number he's only topped seven times in any other single season, and 21 times his entire career.
"With how aggressive we are, you know they are hard minutes, but I am enjoying it," said Kesler, who is still playing some center, taking key draws, killing penalties and continuing to provide the net-front presence on the top power-play unit. "I don't feel fatigued or tired."
Tortorella makes no apologies for riding his top guys, saying several times he only worries about the game they are playing, despite coaching in the Western Conference for the first time, and for a team that uses sleep science to try and optimize rest and recovery amid a tough travel schedule. But given Kesler's recent history of injury and surgery, it's fair to wonder if he can keep up this workhorse pace for an entire season without breaking down physically.
"To be honest, it's five shifts," Kesler said. "It's not that much more. My workouts in the summer are a lot longer than 25 minutes. I'm conditioned for it and it's up to me to keep my body healthy."
That body is completely healthy for the first time in more than two seasons, which is also a factor in Kesler's recent resurgence.
"Ever since the season started I felt like every game I was getting better," Kesler said, insisting his confidence never wavered. "I always knew I had it. There are different circumstances that don't allow you to play the way you want, but it feels good to be back."
Even if he might not be back at center for a while.
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