VANCOUVER (CP) - The contract pressure is over for Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler, but the pressure to perform is becoming more intense.
Last May, the Canucks' first off-season move was to sign the six-foot-two, 205-pound centre to a three-year deal that will pay him US$1.75 million a season. "Obviously, they want me here," he said Monday at training camp. "I love playing here."
The young centre was the flashpoint of a controversy at the beginning of last season after then GM Bob Clarke of the Philadelphia Flyers extended an offer sheet for a one-year, $1.9-million contract.
The Canucks, who had made a qualifying offer of $564,000 for the third-year player, had a week to match the offer or receive a second-round draft pick.
They signed Kesler to a $1.9-million, one-year deal two days later in a move that eroded salary-cap room.
"It put some pressure on me but I think that pressure made me grow into the person I am now and mature a lot faster as a young kid," said the mop-topped Kesler, a 23-year-old native of Livonia, Mich.
It hasn't been an easy journey for Kesler, who was selected in the first round, 23rd overall by the Canucks in the 2003 entry draft.
He plays a rugged game but has struggled to score with 18 goals and 26 assists in 158 regular-season games with Vancouver.
He had six goals last season but missed the final 34 games when a worsening hip injury finally required surgery.
He went through a painstaking rehab to get ready for his first career playoff game against the Dallas Stars, played 27 minutes, then was gone for the season with a broken finger.
Now it's a new contract and a new start for Kesler who is being given an opportunity to skate with Markus Naslund and become a top-six forward.
"It's always awesome to play with Markus," said Kesler, who played his best hockey last January when paired with the Canucks captain and all-time scoring leader.
"He's a great player. Just to get the opportunity on a daily basis to play with him and see how much faith the coaching staff has in me right now and how much of an opportunity they're giving me is awesome."
The overachieving Canucks won the Northwest Division in coach Alain Vigneault's first season last spring and lost in five games in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.
But they finished 21st in scoring. Both Naslund, whose production dropped to 24 goals, and Kesler have acknowledged a need to score and playing them together might be the answer.
"I obviously have to score more this year," Kesler said. "That's something I worked on in the summer, just my shooting and my accuracy.
"For me, it's more creating chances off the forecheck and creating offence that way."
Vigneault said he sees a lot of potential in Kesler.
"I see a lot of talent. I like the fact that he wants to do more and give us more.
Kesler, who is not shy about dropping the gloves, has also showed some toughness. He didn't know his finger was broken from blocking a shot until after the game.
"I knew it hurt," he said. "I really couldn't move it. I had to untie my skates with one hand."