Ryan Kesler has long enjoyed the reputation of a player who speaks softly but carries a big stick. The only difference this year is that stick is scoring goals at a rate that ranks him among the league’s top snipers.
One of the game’s most well respected players for his gritty play on the ice and his soft-spoken demeanor off it, Kesler has suddenly found himself mentioned among hockey’s elite forwards this season.
Heading into the All-Star break, he already surpassed his career-high 26 goals and has the Vancouver Canucks atop the standings in the Western Conference.
“Confidence has a lot to do with what has changed in my game this year,” said Kesler, who currently ranks third in goals scored and first in game-winners in the NHL.
“It also helps that I’m getting more power play time and using my shot a lot more and really just generating chances from there.”
Playing on a power play unit with two of the pre-eminent scorers in the league — Henrik and Daniel Sedin — Kesler attributes his newfound goal-scoring prowess to being in the right place at the right time, and playing with the right linemates.
“Just watching them [Henrik and Daniel Sedin] everyday you learn a lot, but playing with them you learn a little bit more in how they play and how they create space and get those goals that they do,” said Kesler, who was the Canucks first-round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
“They help me do my job on the power play; to get in front of the net and work on my deflection and get those greasy goals, which has definitely brought a new element to my game.”
Vancouver Head Coach Alain Vigneault couldn’t agree more with the progress that Kesler has made this season. He has always counted on his assistant captain to be solid on the defensive side of the puck, but his offensive output has become an added bonus.
“I don’t think a lot really has changed, I think he’s just maturing as an overall player,” said Vigneault, now in his fifth season at the helm with Vancouver. “At the beginning of his time here, we were using him as more of a shutdown center-man, and he was still able to create some scoring chances and get on the score sheet.
“This year, he’s helping our team on the power play. The combination of the players he’s playing with and the fact he’s willing to go with those players and help them out, that’s really making a difference in the way his game is this year.”
The truth is that things have never come easy for Kesler. The Livonia, Mich., native learned at an early age that he had to work hard for everything he earned on the ice. At 15, he was cut from every team he tried out for before moving on to playing under his dad’s tutelage. Despite considering quitting hockey, Kesler persevered and earned a spot at USA Hockey’s burgeoning National Team Development Program in 2000.
While in Ann Arbor, Mich., Kesler excelled as a two-way hockey player, racking up 121 points during domestic and international competitions. Donning the red, white and blue on international ice, Kesler skated in the 2002 IIHF Under-18 World Championship, and two World Junior Championships, including the 2004 competition in which the U.S. won its first ever title.
“I think the NTDP started turning around when the guys that I played with got there,” said Kesler, whose teammates included current NHLers Eric Nystrom,
David Booth and Mark Stuart.
“If I remember, all we were doing was winning gold medals during that time. It was a fun two years we had there, and I’m thrilled to see that it has taken off the way it has.”
And it wasn’t until last season that Kesler’s popularity among casual hockey fans began to take off. After missing the final cut on the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team, Kesler hit the ice in his adopted hometown of Vancouver wearing the rival colors of the United States.
“To have made the team last year was truly something special and an amazing experience, but a bit different, too,” said Kesler who scored in both games against Canada, including the pivotal goal against his Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo that triggered a U.S. comeback in the gold-medal game.
“I was the enemy in Vancouver. Still, the fans were really good to my family and they were really good to me … when we weren’t playing Canada.”
Now back to help the Canucks reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1994, Kesler remains focused on playing his game, doing whatever he can to help the team win.
“I don’t think about much more than how much I enjoy playing this game,” said Kesler, who is a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
“Whether I am scoring goals, blocking shots or bugging the opposing team, I know that if I keep playing my game—offensively or defensively driven—that I can help my team win. And that’s what matters to me.”
And in the eyes of his teammates and Canucks fans, those actions will always speak louder than words.
And don't forget to check out our online exclusive video interview with Kesler here.