Like most hockey players, Ryan Kesler
's first mentor was his father. A former Colorado College forward who coached minor hockey in Michigan for three decades, Mike Kesler taught his son always to be responsible on the ice.
The message sunk in early and became ingrained as Ryan matured as a hockey player. It was evident in his development as he rose through the ranks, from the U.S. National Team Development Program, to Ohio State University and eventually to the AHL Manitoba Moose. That valuable lesson in responsible behavior now is paying huge dividends as the Vancouver Canucks forward establishes himself as one of the best two-way players in the game.
"Ryan is very responsible," said Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa
. "He made his mark while playing in the shut-down role, but now he is put out on the ice in all situations in a game. One of the most impressive things about Ryan is how consistent he is on the ice. He plays the same way every night. He plays hard and he is very responsible defensively. Now he is proving to everybody that he has a scoring touch."
That touch has been on display in full force the last two seasons. Kesler posted career-best numbers of 26 goals and 59 points in 2008-09, and while he has just 5 goals in his first 26 games this season, he has 24 points, putting him pace for 75.
Kesler spends most of his current ice time centering a line with Mason Raymond
and Mikael Samuelsson, giving the Canucks two potent offensive lines, along with the trio of Alexandre Burrows
and Daniel and Henrik Sedin
"When you start putting points on the board you grow confidence, and with every game I am getting more and more confident," said Kesler. "When you feel confident, the puck feels good on your stick and your legs feel good."
Kesler, 25 but in his sixth season, acknowledges confidence comes with experience and it's no small task to be consistently good when you're a young player in the NHL.
"It's hard," said Kesler. "There's a lot of pressure on you to produce. You can start to play mind games with yourself and it's not until you go through it for a couple of years that you figure out that you are only as good as you think you are."
So how good is Kesler?
"My defensive game is there, but I think my offensive game is there, too," he said. "I have been averaging a point per game since the last half of last year and it's something I am really proud of. But every year you want to improve. Playing with a couple of veteran guys on the team and seeing their swagger on the ice has helped. I'm really seeing shift in and shift out how the veterans dominate games and that's what I want to strive for. I'm not there yet by any means. I want to get better every game, every shift, every year."
It hasn't been a quick climb for Kesler, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Mich.
"I wasn't a Red Wings fan growing up," Kesler said. "I was a Minnesota North Stars guy. I really liked Mike Modano. He played a total game."
Modano and Kesler went through similar transformations after a few seasons in the NHL. While Modano entered the League in a blaze of offensive glory, it took a few seasons for him to master the defensive game. The future Hall of Famer emerged as a total player, able to dominate on both sides of the puck, and ultimately helped lead the Dallas Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup.
For Kesler, it has been the reverse. While quickly establishing himself as an adept defensive forward in the NHL, he now is drawing attention as an offensive force. Kesler is a talented player but one who must combine speed with grit to create scoring chances for himself and his linemates.
"Ryan is gritty and emphasizes every aspect of the game," said teammate Jannik Hansen
, who played on a line with Kesler and Burrows for the first half of last season. "He can shoot, pass, and he can play the top areas. Ryan can do pretty much everything. He complements his linemates extremely well. When I had the chance to play with him (last season), it was a matter of skating with him and getting him the puck. He used his speed to his advantage. Now Ryan has more of an offensive role and he is really excelling in that part of the game."
When the Canucks drafted Kesler in the first round (No. 23) of the 2003 Entry Draft, their scouting staff believed his blazing speed, soft hands and obvious intensity one day could translate into something special. And they were right.
"When he broke into the League, a few people he talked to told him that if he played responsible defensively he would play in this game for a long time," said Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell. "And he worked on that side of the game. He competes every night. Being so good defensively has allowed him to play more, work on his skills, and gain the confidence of the coaching staff."
And gain the attention of those around him. He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward last season, and deservedly so. Kesler had a solid 2008-09 campaign, winning 54.0 percent of his faceoffs, finishing with a plus-8 rating, 2 shorthanded goals, 70 blocked shots and a team-high 74 takeaways. His exceptional defensive play, combined with offensive breakout, earned him the Cyclone Taylor Award as the Canucks MVP, as selected by the fans.
Those same fans had high expectations as the Canucks entered the 2009-10 season. Many supporters believed and still have faith the team can challenge for the Stanley Cup. But instead of commanding a spot among the NHL's elite, Vancouver has been outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference standings; they entered Monday's game at New Jersey 11th in the conference. That's doesn't sit well with anyone in the Vancouver locker room. Kesler said he wants to play the second half of the season from a position of strength rather than relying on a torrid stretch drive to nail down a final playoff berth.
"This team still has a long way to go to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "We have the guys in this room to do it. But we've got to start playing like it."