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With new contract in pocket Canucks' Ryan Kesler anxious to start season @NHL

VANCOUVER (CP) - With a new contract in his back pocket Vancouver Canucks centre Ryan Kesler is anxious to show his hip is healthy and that he can be a top-six forward with the NHL team.

Kesler, 22, signed a US$5.2-million, three-year deal with the Canucks on Thursday. That comes after a season where the Livonia, Mich., native missed the final 34 games due to a hip injury, then was knocked out of the first match of the playoffs with a broken finger that needed surgery.

"I'm going to be hungrier at the beginning of the year," Kesler said during a conference call. "I never really had a serious injury that kept me out for more than one game at a time.

"I'm ready to start the season today if I could. I have a couple of months to get back into shape. I'm itching to get back on the ice and get a couple of games under my belt."

Kesler, who had six goals and 10 assists in 48 games last year, said he has something to prove this year.

"I do think I can be a top-six forward and I know I can produce," he said. "Now I just have to go out and prove that I can be a top-six forward and help the team win."

Spending the first part of last season playing with a sore hip was taxing.

"It was frustrating, I wasn't able to play the game I wanted to play," said Kesler. "With the injury lingering I didn't have my full speed and wasn't able to get in on the forecheck like was normal for me."

Vancouver took Kesler 23rd overall in the 2003 draft. The Canucks like Kesler's size - six-foot-two, 205 pounds - and his speed, but are still waiting for him to reach his full potential.

In 158 NHL games over three seasons he's scored 18 goals, added 26 assists and collected 135 penalty minutes.

Kesler's 2006-07 season started in controversy and ended with him in the infirmary.

Last fall the Canucks thought they were close to signing the restricted free agent to a two-year deal, but were caught off guard when former Philadelphia Flyers general manger Bob Clarke put forth a $1.9-million offer sheet.

Vancouver GM Dave Nonis had to either match the offer or lose Kesler and receive a second-round draft pick. It seemed like a huge salary for someone who had 10 goals and 13 assists the previous season.

Kesler couldn't help but hear the grumbling from fans who thought he was overpaid.

"With all the people saying I didn't deserve (the salary, it) made me stronger mentally," he said. "I knew people were going to be against me. I just had to deal with that."

In January Kesler had surgery to repair a torn labrum, the cartilage that lines the socket of the hip. He missed the rest of the regular season, but returned to play in the first game of Vancouver's opening playoff round against Dallas.

He left the game in the fourth overtime and needed surgery to repair a finger that was cut and broken.

"The injuries are part of the game," said Kesler. "You have to deal with them.

"The finger was frustrating."

Managing to play a game on his hip was important for Kesler.

"That game was a huge confidence builder," he said. "I really didn't know what to expect out there.

"I wanted to prove to everybody I did have my speed. The next day I wasn't sore. I believe now my hip is better. Now, if I can just get this finger under wraps and get the range of motion, I'll be back to 100 per cent."

The Canucks struggled to score goals last year as the team adapted to new coach Alain Vigneault. Kesler expects a faster start this year.

"The first part of the season we couldn't score just because everybody was still getting used to each other and figure out our identity as a team," he said.

"Once we figured out our identity we realized how to play."

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