This is where so many of the jobs are won and lost and one guy to keep a close eye on is Ryan Kesler
. At 23, and with youth still on his side, but no longer considered a ‘young’ player after spending parts of the last three seasons in the National Hockey League, the time has come to see exactly what Kesler can bring to this hockey club. And it looks like he’s going to get every opportunity in the preseason to prove that he’s got more in his repertoire than simply skating miles every night with little to show for his efforts.
No one will doubt his speed and skating ability and after rehabbing like a madman from hip surgery last January in order to return for the Canucks playoff opener, no one can question his heart, determination or character either. But the one thing that very much remains open to questioning is Kesler’s ability to consistently contribute offence to a team that could very much use his production.
Now, nobody is asking Kesler to match the 30 goals he scored in Manitoba during the lockout year of 2004-05. But half of that total is to be expected this season and perhaps 20 goals isn’t out of the question.
“Obviously, I feel that way. I feel like I need to produce this year to help this team win and to go far in the playoffs. We’ve got to have a good regular season, we have a tough division this year and I think we need everybody playing their best,” Kesler says of the expectations placed upon him – not just by others, but by himself as well. “I just have to capitalize on my chances; that’s basically what produce means to me. You don’t get that many chances in the NHL, and when you do you’ve got to bury them. That’s going to be my goal this year.”
Kesler, who had six goals in 48 games last year and had a career-best 10 goals two seasons ago, was given a great opportunity to generate offence in Sunday’s intrasquad game centering a line with captain Markus Naslund on the left side and speedy newcomer Ryan Shannon on the right wing. And it looks like Kesler will continue to skate with Naslund at times throughout the preseason giving the Livonia, Michigan native a chance to play with a legitimate NHL scorer.
This challenge for Kesler will be to maintain his defensive responsibilities while starting to show some offensive creativity. Playmaking has not been Kesler’s forte to this point in his career with just 26 assists in 158 NHL games. In fact, at every level throughout his career in college, the minors and the NHL, Kesler’s assists have barely outpaced his goal-scoring -- and neither number has overwhelmed.
The Canucks seem intent on using Kesler in the middle, although in many ways – with his size and grit – he seems better suited to the wing where he could wheel in on the forecheck and engage defenders in battles for loose pucks. However, for the time being he will continue to muck it up in the middle and his attempt to provide offence here in the preseason will be closely monitored by management, coaches, the media and fans.
Kesler knows it. But rather than worry about what hasn’t happened for him in the past, he’s come to camp this year determined to be one of the guys who can step in and provide some of the scoring that was lacking last year. Playing with Naslund should help and after missing the second half of last season and all but the playoff opener due to injury, Kesler can’t wait for his audition to begin.
“The first couple of preseason games, I’m going to be jacked like it’s a playoff game. But I just have to take it a game at a time and not go out and kill myself the first game,” he says of trying to stay healthy and contribute. “I did at every other level, so I’m just looking to do it now. I believe I can do it and that’s where you’ve got to start is believing that you can do it.”
Kesler’s teammates believe in him, too and would like nothing better than to see him step up the offensive side of his game. Over the years Kesler has been compared to a younger Trevor Linden due to his style of play and his right-handed shot. Linden likes a lot of what Kesler brings to the rink, but even the veteran knows this is an important year for the 2003 first round draft pick.
“He needs to step up and take a bigger role, there’s no question. He’s getting into year number four now. He needs to step up now and he’s capable of doing it and I’m sure that’s what he intends to do,” says Linden. “I think he needs to be in the right spot and you have to earn those minutes, of course. He’s got a great game. We missed his game tremendously in the playoffs and that’s where he’s going to be a real solid contributor for us. Given the right situations, he’s got the right tools to [contribute offensively], so I don’t see why he won’t.”
It sure looks like Ryan Kesler
’s going to be put in those ‘right situations’ here in the preseason. Whether he gets the chance when the real fun begins on October 5th is up to him and how he performs over the next two weeks. But Kesler is one of the players that has a chance to make a significant impact on a team desperately hoping it can improve from within.
And when it comes to this preseason, it’s safe to say that Ryan Kesler
will very much be the Canucks’ ‘centre of attention’.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org