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Two-way play, commitment to shoot make Kesler invaluable to Canucks

by John Manasso / Vancouver Canucks

At the end of the season, as his team closed in on clinching the Presidents' Trophy, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault was fond of pointing out what his team overcame to get where it was.

The Canucks ranked sixth in the NHL in man-games lost to injury. All of the other teams that had lost more man-games to injury, Vigneault observed, were not going to qualify for the playoffs.

"So I think our core group -- our key guys -- really deserve a lot of credit for that," Vigneault said.

Of course, Henrik Sedin, the 2010 Hart Trophy winner, and his twin brother Daniel, a leading candidate for the award in 2011 after winning the Art Ross Trophy – two of the Canucks' "key guys," if ever there were any -- have earned many deserved accolades.

However, to gain the kind of Stanley Cup playoff success the Canucks desire and to prove they are no longer a "one-line team," center Ryan Kesler will be as critical as anyone.

Kesler took a quantum leap in his goal-scoring this season with 41 -- 15 more than his previous best and tied for fourth in the League with Daniel Sedin.

That's a big difference. It's the difference between scoring a little more often than once every four games and scoring once every two.

"I don't think it's just one thing, I think it's multiple things," Kesler said of his increased production. "I worked on my shot a lot in the summer, that's gotten better. I play net-front on the power play. You know, tipping pucks and getting greasy ones has definitely upped my total; but really just coming to the rink and having a workmanlike attitude and never being satisfied with my game is what I pride myself on."

Perhaps because of the time and effort he put in during the offseason -- work Kesler said he did on his own -- the 26-year-old native of suburban Detroit enjoyed the highest shooting percentage of his career, though modestly so -- 15.8 compared to 14.5 in 2008-09.

In some ways, Kesler's scoring might be more a function of increased opportunity.

After being on the Canucks' second power-play unit last season, he has moved to its first with the Sedins and has scored 15 power-play goals. Yet even that total is only three more than he recorded in 2009-10.

It would seem, then, that the most dramatic difference has come in the number of shots that Kesler takes -- an idea often preached by coaches to various players, but, for whatever reason, not always heeded.

Kesler ended up 260 shots, which represents 46 more than his previous high and increase of almost 18 percent. 

"In this room, we knew he could score a lot of goals," Daniel Sedin said. "He's just got a really good shot and he's been using it a little bit more this year."

As a result, Kesler and his line -- as constituted late in the season with Chris Higgins and Mason Raymond -- will be counted upon for critical scoring in the playoffs. The loss of checking center Manny Malhotra late in the season also could thrust Kesler into something of a key defensive role, possibly for defensive-zone faceoffs.

He was plus-24, tying him for 12th among League forwards. He also ranks among the NHL's best faceoff men at 57.4 percent, tied for sixth in the League.

Those statistics are among the reasons that Kesler could again be a candidate for the Selke Award, for which he was one of the three finalists last season.

Kesler said whether or not he wins the award is hardly at the top of his mind.

"I think individual awards come from team success," he said. "I don't go into the year wanting to win the Selke or anything like that. But it's an honor to be mentioned the last two years. If I get to go to (Las) Vegas again this year and be mentioned this time, and possibly win, it would be an honor; but it's not really what I'm thinking about, to be honest."

Among those whose respect Kesler has earned is that of Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd. Each of the two previous seasons Vancouver and Chicago, of which Ladd was then a member, met in the second round of the playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning both meetings.

The rivalry, both on the team and individual level, was intense. Ladd and Kesler fought each other once during the 2009-10 regular season with Kesler having some harsh words for Ladd, accusing him of breaking his nose with a cross-check.

Asked about the rangy 6-foot-2, 202-pound Kesler, Ladd, a similar gritty, two-way player, took the high road.

"As far as two-way players in the League, he's up there," said Ladd, a British Columbia native. "It's just part of the game. Sometimes personalities clash or the way you play. We both play hard.

"I just think it was the whole rivalry and sort of a personality clash on ice. In terms of the way we play, we play hard and play with an edge and those things happen."

Playing with an edge is often a prerequisite to playoff success and it can inspire the kind of greasy goals that Kesler has fought for this season. As the League's top regular-season team, Vancouver carries high expectations both locally  -- and even nationally.

The franchise has not reached a conference final since 1994, the same year of its epic seven-game loss in the Stanley Cup Final to the New York Rangers. The Canucks also could be Canada's best hope for the nation's first Cup since 1993.

If Kesler -- ironically, a key American on the top Canadian franchise -- can help the Canucks erase the stigma of being a one-line team through playoff scoring, it will go a long way in aiding Vancouver's cause.

Kesler has just 3 goals in 23 career postseason games, but 14 points.

"I believe there's nothing we can do to change what's happened in the past," Vigneault said. "What we can do is focus on ourselves, focus on getting ourselves ready. Throughout the year, we've done a pretty good job of meeting each challenge head-on the best we could and have done a pretty good job so far.

"We are all aware as players and coaches that we won't be judged on what we do in the regular season, but by what we do in the playoffs."

Kesler praised the team's regular-season accomplishments, as Vancouver had never won a regular-season Western Conference title, nor the Presidents' Trophy.

Nonetheless, he recognizes the truth of his coach's words.

"Yeah, we need to have success in the postseason," he said. "You need a lot of things to go right. You need luck to be on your side and you need the injury bug to stay away from you. Saying that, we need to go out and produce and win. Bottom line."

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