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Good Signs

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks
Ryan Kesler relishes pressure.

Not just big-game pressure, but the pressure that invariably comes with a million-dollar NHL contract. Kesler doesn't view it as a burden - he sees it as a challenge.

And in a city where scrutiny is revered as high art and mediocre goaltending is met with the kind of disdain and fury usually reserved for embezzling politicians, this is a very good thing.

Kesler's Kevlar disposition isn't the only reason general manager Dave Nonis signed the 22-year-old centre to a new three-year contract Thursday morning, but it certainly didn't hurt his cause either.

Nonis has made it abundantly clear that he wants a certain type of player on his bench: Character guys who would rather choke down a handful of live bumble bees than lose even a pre-season hockey game.

Kesler fits right in.

"I'm ready to start the season today if I could," said Kesler, who suffered a serious hip injury in mid-January that required surgery. "I've got a couple months to get back into game shape and I'll be raring to get on the ice and get a couple of games under my belt."

The 22-year-old centre from Livonia, Michigan, logged just 48 games this year after signing a $1.9 million offer sheet from Bobby Clark last September that significantly raised expectations for young forward with a total of 12 goals and 28 points in a 110-game NHL career heading into 2006-07.

"People were going to say what they were going to say about the offer sheet," said Kesler. "I think all the people saying I didn't deserve just made me stronger mentally. It wasn't difficult to deal with at all."

"I knew that by signing the offer sheet people were going to be against me and I knew I had to deal with that. I thought I did a good job of handling it."

Kesler collected six goals and 16 points before the hip injury sidelined him for the final 34 games of the regular season.

He battled back his way back - ahead of schedule - and re-joined the team just in time to play his first ever NHL playoff game against the Dallas Stars. Kesler promptly mangled his finger forcing him right back up to the press box.

Despite the disappointing end to his first ever playoffs, Kesler said it was a big boost.

"The game was a huge confidence builder for me. I really didn't know what to expect out there and I wanted to prove to everybody that I still had my speed. I played 30 minutes and the next day I wasn't even sore... Now if I can get just this finger under wrap I'll be back to 100 percent."

And that's great news for the Canucks. Kesler was one of the biggest reasons the team boasted the league's top penalty kill and his formidable forechecking savvy was sorely missed in the playoffs.

"Injuries are part of the game and you just have to deal with it," he said. "The finger was frustrating, but hey, if we were playing now I'd be back. It's just one of things that you have to live with."

Kesler logged the bulk of his minutes this season in a third-line checking role. Despite playing just his second full season in the NHL, Kesler was an integral part of the team's Christmas turnaround that eventually propelled the Canucks to their second division title in three years. Kesler says he's ready for a bigger role in 2007-08.

"I do think I can be a top six forward. I think I can produce, [in fact] I know I can produce. Now I just have to go out and prove myself."

With Henrik Sedin and Brendan Morrison filling the top two spots at the centre position, Kesler's climb up the depth chart could mean a move to the wing.

"I feel comfortable playing both positions," he said. "I played wing in my entire career at Ohio State, and I played wing when I played for USA at the World Juniors. I'm used to wing. I think I'm a better centre because I'm responsible defensively, and I like that part of my game, but I think I can be just as effective at wing."

Kesler, who was the Canucks' first round pick (23rd overall) in 2003, knows as well as anyone that increased minute will mean increased pressure to score. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound skater is confident the points will come despite the fact that the Canucks were one of the lowest scoring teams in the league last season.

"I think in the first part of the season we couldn't score just because everyone was getting used to each other and we were still finding our identity as a team. Once we figured that out, and realized how to play, that helped us score goals."

The expectations for the defending Northwest Division champions will certainly be ratcheted up a few notches this year and a scoring slump out of the gate would invariably draw lots of heat. Kesler doesn't mind. For him, it's all part of the fun.
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