After months of rehabilitation, countless hours of skating and pushing his body to the limit, Ryan Kesler is ready.
Anaheim's perennial shutdown center is expected to make his season debut tonight after undergoing hip surgery in June. This morning he skated alongside Andrew Cogliano and Chris Wagner at Honda Center as the Ducks prepare for the Vegas Golden Knights.
It has been a long road back for the 33-year-old Livonia, Michigan native, who says he had to re-learn how to walk at one point during his recovery process. "There have been a lot of challenges," he said today. "Being on crutches for 14 weeks was one of them. Guys tell me I walked with a limp for three years. Just skating and getting my stride back. I feel better out there now than I did five years ago. It was a much-needed surgery and I'm glad I did it."
Kesler's debut also gives Anaheim depth down the middle. The Ducks have had to shuffle the deck since the season started, giving players different (and often times elevated) roles to fill the voids left by key figures like Kesler and Ryan Getzlaf, who just recently returned from a lengthy absence due to injury. Now, if line rushes hold from the morning skate, you can expect the Ducks to roll Getzlaf, Kesler, Adam Henrique and Antoine Vermette down the middle.
Even though a player such as Kesler is irreplaceable, head coach Randy Carlyle knows it will take time for the two-way center to get back up to speed. "We're going to have to tamper our enthusiasm," he said. "We know it takes time for players to get their 'A' game underneath them. But the one thing about Kesler - he'll be out there battling and giving 110 percent. That's his motto."
Having not played in a game since May 22 (Game 6 of the 2017 Western Conference Final), Kesler knows there will be certain challenges early on. "Reading and reacting off plays and not just going off drills," he said. "Mentally, that's going to be the biggest thing. I'm just looking forward to hitting someone that isn't on my team. I'm looking forward to the battle out there."
Carlyle, who joked that Kesler "had a long enough rest," says the amount of ice time he sees tonight will be determined by how the game unfolds. "When a player tells you he's ready to play, he's going to play," Carlyle added. "We're going to give him his opportunity. Now is the time he plays for keeps."
Looking For Revenge
Vegas enters tonight's game with four consecutive victories and eight wins over its last 10 games. As the leaders of the Western Conference, the Golden Knights have also taken three of four points in the two previous meetings against the Ducks, including a 4-3 shootout victory at T-Mobile Arena earlier this month.
This game also opens a stretch that sees the Ducks face Pacific Division opponents seven games in a row. "These are four-point games," said Carlyle. "This hockey club we're playing tonight has taken four points away from us. I don't think that should sit well with our group."
Potential Line Combinations
Video: Ryan Kesler on his season debut against Vegas