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Kesler can check, and now he's starting to score

by Karl Samuelson
Until recently, many people thought of Ryan Kesler as a solid checker for the Vancouver Canucks.

That's it, a solid checker.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a reliable, checking forward. Every team needs a few of them, and Kesler has been one of the best practitioners over the past two seasons. But he always has had the potential to do more than simply keeping his opponent off the score sheet.

When the Vancouver Canucks drafted him in the first round (No. 23) of the 2003 Entry Draft, they thought that his blazing speed, soft hands and natural tenacity one day could translate into solid offensive production.

That day finally has arrived.

Kesler already has surpassed his 37 points of last season, and after moving from center to right wing on a line with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra, the 24-year-old speedster is well on his way to setting new career benchmarks in all offensive categories.

"When he broke into the League, a few people he talked to told him that if he played responsible defensively he would play in this game for a long time," said Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell. "And he worked on that side of the game. Being so good defensively has allowed him to play more, work on his skills, and gain the confidence of the coaching staff.

"At center you are more of a playmaker. You are the one that has to be the first guy back and sometimes you have to be moving pretty slowly in the middle of the ice to find that hole and open spot. Transitioning to the wing has allowed Ryan to better use his speed. He gets the puck a lot more on the wing and is able to generate more chances, especially playing with Mats and Pavol, who are both excellent hockey players who have played the game a long time. That has allowed Ryan to expand his game into more of an offensive role. Now the offensive side of his game is starting to bloom."

Heading into the stretch drive, Vancouver has more than one line capable of scoring. The Demitra-Sundin-Kesler trio joins the line of Alex Burrows and Daniel and Henrik Sedin to give the Canucks two strong scoring lines and two options on the power play.

"When you start putting points on the board you grow confidence, and with every game I am getting more and more confident," Kesler said. "When you feel confident, the puck feels good on your stick and your legs feel good. You feel like you don't get tired out there and it seems like everything is going in the net."

Lately, practically everything has been going into the net, or at least on the net. The Canucks' position as one of the NHL's strongest teams has coincided with Kesler's emergence as a complete forward. He is proving to be adept at shutting down the other team's top line and not getting scored against at even strength while adding timely goals.
"Playing against the other team's top lines and still being able to contribute (offensively) is a huge asset," said Vancouver rookie forward Jannik Hansen, who played on a line with Kesler and Burrows for the first half of the season. "Ryan is gritty and emphasizes every aspect of the game. He can shoot, pass, and he can play the top areas. Ryan can do pretty much everything, so he complements his linemates extremely well. When I had the chance to play with him, it was a matter of skating with him and getting him the puck and that way he used his speed to his advantage. Now Ryan is being given more of an offensive role and he is excelling in that part of the game. That is huge for us, especially at this time of the year."

"He has been one of our best forwards all season," added defenseman Kevin Bieksa. "One of the most impressive things about Ryan is how consistent he is on the ice. He plays the same way every night. He plays hard and he is very responsible defensively. But he is now proving to everybody that he has a scoring touch. He made his mark while being in the shut-down role, but this year he's got a lot of power-play time and he is put out on the ice in all situations in a game. Ryan is very responsible and is flourishing as a player."

"When you start putting points on the board you grow confidence, and with every game I am getting more and more confident. When you feel confident, the puck feels good on your stick and your legs feel good. You feel like you don't get tired out there and it seems like everything is going in the net."
-- Ryan Kesler

Kesler is taking a page from the playbook of the forwards he most admired while growing up near Hockeytown, USA. But the native of Livonia, Mich., went against the grain as a young hockey fan and supported a team other than the Detroit Red Wings.

"I wasn't a Red Wings fan growing up," Kesler said. "I was a Minnesota North Stars guy. I really liked Mike Modano. He was my favorite player. I liked Joe Sakic as well. But even though I didn't like the Wings, I respected Steve Yzerman and looked up to him. He was a great captain for a long time, and the way he competed and battled was real special to watch. Each of those players played a total game and showed great leadership."

Kesler is not too shabby in the leadership department himself.

"Ryan is definitely one of the leaders on the team," said Mitchell. "He is a young (assistant) captain, so he can't be a rah-rah guy too much in the dressing room because he hasn't experienced it all yet. Ryan has had one playoff game in his career because he was injured when we went to the playoffs (in 2006-07), so he understands that his time for being vocal is coming. And as he is growing as a person and as a player that leadership role will grow as well. The way Ryan leads is with his play on the ice. He competes every night. He battles and his play on the ice does all the talking."

With his consistent effort this season it is conceivable Kesler could score 30 goals and help lead the Canucks deep in the playoffs with his superlative two-way play.

"That's what I am working for this year," said Kesler. "I'm just going to keep working hard and see what happens."
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