By Kyle Shohara
In one of the biggest storylines of the season, Ryan Kesler makes his long-awaited return to Vancouver tonight as the Ducks close out their two-game road trip against the Canucks at Rogers Arena.
Kesler wore Canucks blue for 10 seasons after Vancouver drafted him in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2003 NHL Draft. The American who won the hearts of his Canadian fan base went on to record 393 points (182g/211a) with a +25 rating and 594 penalty minutes in 655 career games with Vancouver. Kesler was awarded the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2011 (awarded to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game) and was a 2011 NHL All-Star. During Vancouver’s 2011 Cup run (lost in Game 7 to Boston in the Stanley Cup Final), Kesler earned 19 points (7g/12a) in 25 games and led the team with a 54.1 faceoff percentage.
His time in Vancouver was marked by ebbs and flows, and his relationship with the media was often misinterpreted in such a hockey-crazed market. “You guys think I’m grumpy all the time, but sometimes I just don’t want to talk to you,” he said during a news conference yesterday at Rogers Arena. “The media here hasn’t been hard on me. Everything has been fair. I just think there are a couple of guys who report stuff that shouldn’t be reported - personally and away from the game. That’s the stuff I didn’t like. Other than that, you guys are hard on us, but it’s fair.”
Kesler became a polarizing figure near the end of his tenure in Vancouver, but never was he ignored. “I guess that’s my personality,” he said. “You either love me or hate me. I love this city and called it my home ever since I came here for training camp when I was 18. Now I’m 30, so that’s a long time in my life.”
After talking with Canucks General Manager Jim Benning and President, Hockey Operations & Alternate Governor, NHL Trevor Linden over the summer, Kesler decided it was time to move on, and now he finds himself on a new team for the first time in his career. Kesler said he was “a little nervous” being the new guy, but now has settled in nicely.
“It’s been great,” he said of his time in Anaheim. “The guys, the room, the staff…everyone has been great. Obviously, I was a little nervous going into a new room for the first time, and being the new guy for the first time in your career. Their leadership - and the guys in the room - really brought me in and made me feel comfortable right off the bat.”
Kesler is 20 games into this new chapter in his life, and he’s in the groove. He currently ranks tied for third on the Ducks with 15 points (6g/9a), including points in five of his last seven (3g/4a). His addition to the lineup has also taken the load off of captain Ryan Getzlaf in terms of ice time and faceoffs. In the circle, Kesler ranks 10th among NHL leaders in faceoff win percentage (56.2%) on a team that enters tonight's game with the league’s third-best faceoff win percentage (53.0%, tied with St. Louis) after finishing last season tied for 19th.
“He’s been great for us,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “He’s fit in with the guys really well, and he’s playing well over 20 minutes a night. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re still in the position that we’re in.”
Kesler has been on the big stage before, including a gold medal game with Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. Although tonight’s game doesn’t quite measure up to those two in terms of sheer magnitude, Kesler says he’s been waiting for this one for quite some time. “Yeah, it’s a big game,” he said. “I’ve definitely had this one circled for a long time. I expect an exciting game. I expect to get two points and get out of here.”
And if the reception is less than welcoming? Kesler says that’s just fine. “Hopefully they appreciated the 10 years that I played here and remember the good times,” he said. “I’m hoping for a warm reception, but if not, it’s part of the game.
“It’s going to be an emotional night for me, but if they boo me, it’ll probably jack me up even more,” he said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be an intense night, and I’m looking forward to it.”
BEAUCHEMIN, SMITH-PELLY BACK IN THE LINEUP
After several days of practice, defenseman Francois Beauchemin is expected to return to the lineup tonight. His addition will be a welcome presence to the Ducks, who have given up nine goals in their past two games. Beauchemin missed five games due to mumps.
“I think the key was just to make sure I needed the rest and make sure to get the food back in you and get some energy back,” said Beauchemin. “I got most of it back Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
Adds Boudreau, “You don’t realize how much you miss somebody until he’s gone for a long period of time. He was missed. He eats up minutes and he plays at important times.”
Beauchemin currently leads the team in average time on ice (22:50) and ranks second in blocked shots (28).
Devante Smith-Pelly is also expected to draw back into the lineup after coming off the injured reserve list because of an upper-body ailment. He’s eligible to play tonight. The 22-year-old says he was injured during last week’s home game vs. LA when he was hit along the boards, but deems himself ready to play. “I still feel pretty good,” said Smith-Pelly, who has missed three consecutive games. “I think I still got my game legs. I didn’t really lose anything. If I get back, then I’ll be ready.”
Smith-Pelly has three goals and seven points in 17 games this season.