It doesn’t happen often, which is what made the occurrence so remarkable -- Ryan Kesler let down his guard and spoke from the heart. On Tuesday, Kesler dropped the figurative walls around him and spoke openly and candidly about the abrupt end to the playoffs and the fact he wasn’t able to generate offense the way he had the year before when he played such a key role in the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The 27-year-old Livonia, Michigan native didn’t shy away from the issues and admitted that he struggled to fully recover from hip surgery last July. He also revealed that that over the final months of this past season he was hampered by a shoulder injury – possibly suffered when he was hit hard by Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall in a February 2nd game on home ice.
It all added up to a 22 goal, 49 point season for Kesler – numbers that were well off the 41 goals and 73 points he amassed in 2010-11 when he won the Selke Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best defensive forward.
“Obviously I’m pretty disappointed with the way my year went,” Kesler said, offering a frank assessment as he stood in his empty stall one last time this season. “I think you guys know me well enough to know I hold myself to a higher standard. And for me it was tough this year, but like I said, it’s going to be a long summer and I have to make the most of it. It’s tough coming off injuries. That sounds like an excuse, but it was tough. It took me longer than expected and I probably came back a little too early. But that’s hindsight now. I felt the last two months I was skating really well and for me I was happy to see that.”
And while Kesler saw signs that his skating legs were returning to form, for whatever reason he simply couldn’t translate that into offensive production. And when the Canucks lost leading goal-scorer Daniel Sedin for a dozen games including the first three games of their opening round series with Los Angeles, Kesler found himself trying, but unable, to fill the void. In the end, his goal-scoring drought covered the final 17 games he played this season.
He managed to set up three goals in the post-season, but couldn’t find the back of the net in tight, low-scoring games when even one goal could have made a huge difference. And in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business of professional sports, it’s produce or get sent to the sidelines and that’s where Kesler and the Canucks now find themselves after playing into mid-June and nearly winning it all a year ago.
“Shocked,” he said when asked to describe the feeling of having the post-season end almost before it began. “You play 82 games to play five extra doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. You go through the 82-game schedule and we had a great year. We took a lot of flak all year and still finished on top, but we’re judged by playoffs and we didn’t perform. Myself, I take full accountability. I needed to produce and I didn’t.”
While the statistics did not show it this season, Kesler believes he and linemate David Booth have what it takes to become a dynamic duo. The Canucks brought Booth in back in October to flank Kesler on the wing and the pairing seemed like a work in progress right through the end of the season. But Kesler not only sees potential with Booth, he says the two are intent on making it work. And since both are from the Detroit area and spend some of their off-seasons there, the two have already agreed to put in time together over the summer to be better next season than they were in their first year playing together since they were minor hockey teammates in their youth.
“That takes time, chemistry takes time,” Kesler explained. “I know everybody made a big deal about me playing with him from before, but I don’t think we played on the same line back then. It’s coming. It’s there. We were starting to feel each other out. He’s a big body and he likes to take the puck wide. We’re going to skate together this summer and try to figure some things out.”
While the sting of an early playoff exit will likely stick with the entire Canucks roster for a while, Ryan Kesler offered one silver-lining for the long off-season ahead. He knows there was more he could have done to help the hockey team and vows to be more of a force next year. And a motivated Ryan Kesler could be a very dangerous player for Canucks opponents to defend.
“I wasn’t good enough down the stretch and it’s going to be a long summer,” he said, frustration evident in his voice. “I’m going to take this time to rest and recover and I’m going to come back next year and be better.”
There is an organization, a group of a teammates and a city of hockey fans already looking forward to seeing Ryan Kesler make good on that promise.