From a production standpoint, the 2009-10 season was the best yet for Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler
But Kesler isn't about individual accolades. While the 26-year-old had 25 goals and a career-high 75 points, the Michigan native came up just short at the Winter Olympics as the Americans suffered an overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game. Less than three months later, his Canucks were ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks -- the eventual champions -- in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It was a tough year," Kesler told NHL.com. "It was tough just because I lost twice last year -- I lost in the Olympics and then obviously in the second round against Chicago. To see them go on and win it, I don't know if it was harder, but it definitely gave me more motivation to come back and to go all the way this year."
One thing Kesler doesn't have to worry about this season is a contract extension. Just a few months before he was set to become a restricted free agent, Kesler agreed to a six-year deal that will keep him in Vancouver until at least 2016. The Canucks are the only professional organization he's ever known -- they selected him in the first round (No. 23) of the 2003 Entry Draft.
"It was nice to finally get that behind me and just focus on playing hockey and winning the Stanley Cup, which is every kid's dream and every guy's dream in the NHL," he said of the new contract. "I just want to improve on what I did last year and just continue with the success I had last year. Hopefully we can go further in the playoffs."
Kesler is certainly excited about the Canucks' chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994 and winning the franchise's first-ever championship in 2011. Hoping to shore up the blue line, Vancouver GM Mike Gillis signed free agent Dan Hamhuis
to a six-year deal and landed Keith Ballard
in a trade with the Florida Panthers. Both will log major minutes for the Canucks this season and should help limit the amount of quality shots on world-class goalie Roberto Luongo
"I like the moves he made," Kesler said. "He did it right. There's a couple of changes, but the changes he made I think are going to be good moves."
Naturally, with the added talent comes added pressure to win. But Kesler isn't too worried about that, especially playing in a hockey-crazed market such as Vancouver.
"We've always had a lot of pressure on us to succeed, especially being in a Canadian city and having fans as passionate as our fans," Kesler said. "Is there added pressure? Probably a little bit. But we know that we have a really good chance. There's not many years where you feel you have a really good chance, and this year I feel we have a really good chance. We can go a long way."
To do that, the Canucks will have to get past the likes of Chicago and San Jose. The latter recently signed Antti Niemi, who became a free agent after the Blackhawks decided to walk away from the goaltender's $2.75 million arbitration award. Niemi agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with the Sharks, who, like the Canucks, are attempting to get over the hump in the postseason.
"I understand why Chicago had to get rid of him," Kesler said. "For San Jose, it's obviously a good move. Niemi's won. That's a big thing when you can go all the way and say you won a Stanley Cup. Obviously it gives them experience and hopefully they'll go far. But not as far as us."