The Canucks are one of the NHL's hottest teams, and a big reason is that one of the league's hottest heads, Ryan Kesler, has decided to chill out. Turns out taking the edge off his temper hasn't taken it off his play
Is that really Ryan Kesler? It sure looks like him, with that steely stare and perpetual scruff. And whoever is wearing that number 17 Canucks sweater sure plays like Kesler—with the same physicality and explosive speed. But the Ryan Kesler known throughout the NHL as one of the more annoying agitators in hockey would never skate away from a confrontation, especially one with a trash-talking rookie. Last season, if a 23-year-old kid like the Oilers' Theo Peckham had warned Kesler that, in so many words, he should prepare for the longest night of his life (as the hulking defenseman did in Vancouver three weeks ago), the Canucks' second-line center would have shot back with something like, "Who are you again? Am I supposed to know you?" But this mystery man isn't even barking back.
Indeed, as Peckham skates just a stride behind Kesler, jawing away in hopes of provoking a reaction, the target of his taunting simply rolls his eyes and shakes his head. But he does not engage. Not anymore.
Meet the new Ryan Kesler. These days, when he wants to send a message he lets his play do the talking. During what became a 6--1 drubbing of the Oilers on Jan. 7, Kesler spoke rarely and carried a big stick. Early in the second period he swooped into the zone and loosed a blistering wrist shot from just inside the blue line. Edmonton goalie Nikolai Khabibulin got a piece of the puck with his glove, but not enough; it popped into the air and over his head, then dribbled into the net. Kesler then scored on a pair of deflections in the third, the last one while screening Khabibulin on Vancouver's formidable power play, which through Sunday is humming along at 23.3%, third best in the NHL. Even when his second hat trick in 12 games was in the books, Kesler resisted the urge to point out to Peckham that his night hadn't been so bad.
Trading in a smart mouth for smarter play has been nothing but a boon to the production of the Livonia, Mich., native—and not just because his penalty minutes are down from 1:16 a game last season to :50. With 26 goals through Sunday, Kesler has equaled his career high and is on pace for his first 80-point season. Skating on the top power-play unit, on the penalty kill and, usually, in shootouts, he leads all Canucks forwards in ice time (20:38). He is winning 56.5% of his face-offs, and even though, as the Canucks' second-line center, he's often matched against opponents' top lines, he's +16. With five game-winners, he is the midseason favorite to earn his first Selke Trophy, annually awarded to the league's best two-way forward.
"The bottom line is that he does everything [you can do] to make players around him better," says USA Hockey's assistant executive director of operations Jim Johannson, for whom Kesler played at the Olympics last February.
This season that's no exaggeration: As Kesler goes, so go the Canucks. Through Sunday, Vancouver (29-10-9, tops in the West), which has lost only three games in regulation since Dec. 5, is 24-1-5 when Kesler gets a point. And the secret to his success—as well as his club's—seems wholly attributable to his new attitude.
The call to action—or in Kesler's case, inaction—came last spring when general manager Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault conducted year-end meetings with each of their players. They believed Kesler, along with a handful of his teammates, needed a dose of behavioral rehabilitation. The constant chirping, the extracurricular hits, the retaliatory penalties all "camouflaged immaturity," according to Gillis. Kesler and his mates, in other words, were wasting energy on insignificant parts of the game, more interested in ego battles than in victory.
Gillis and Vigneault explained to Kesler what they saw, then told him what they wanted to see. The fiercely competitive forward has always played with tenacity, but in moments of frustration his emotions often got the best of him. If he missed a shot on a breakaway, for instance, it wouldn't be surprising to see him shatter his stick on the way to the bench. On nights when things went poorly, Kesler would brood over the game, replaying it over and over again in his head. In the eyes of his G.M. and coach, he had a hard time letting things go. And that needed to change.
"If I see you break a stick on the boards again," Gillis warned him, "you won't be playing the next night."
It was the first time anybody—besides an opponent—had really confronted him about his lack of self-control. "When your boss says something to you, you're going to listen," says Kesler, 26. Chastened, he went to Michigan to talk to his father, Mike, the man who taught him how to play the game. At the time, Ryan and his wife, Andrea, had one child, two-year-old daughter Mikayla, and were expecting a second. (Their son, Ryker, was born last month.)
"You've got a kid and another on the way," Mike said. "What would they think of you if they saw you breaking your stick after you missed a breakaway?"
It was exactly what his son needed to hear. "That really put things into perspective for me," Ryan says, smiling. "You don't want your kids thinking you're a hothead or anything like that. You're supposed to be the mature one and set a good example.... So from then on out, I've been this positive person who doesn't get rattled. Even my friends see a change. And, uh, they like the new me." He chuckles.
Kesler wasn't laughing when he began the season without so much as an assist through the Canucks' first four games. Skating away from scrums became almost unbearable for a player who had grown accustomed to a life in the middle of them. "I knew it was part of my game that I had to let go," he says. "[But] it was definitely pretty hard to try this new thing when you're not having success."
When Kesler finally scored in the third period of the fifth game, a one-timer from the top of the left circle on a power play, "it felt like a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders," he says. The goal itself was rather insignificant—the last in a 5--1 win over the Hurricanes—but it gave him confidence that his new approach wouldn't dilute his play.
Kesler now acknowledges that, if anything, reserving his focus and energy for his play between the whistles has probably strengthened his game. "As far as him playing with an edge, him playing with grit and being physical and feisty when he needs to be," Vigneault says, "that hasn't changed one iota."
It was always easy to spot Mike Kesler up in the stands. While the other dads were shouting instructions to their sons—things like Skate! and Shoot!—Mike was the one screaming Backcheck! In the Kesler household defense and hard work were non-negotiable. If Ryan didn't give his best effort, he knew what he'd be hearing on the long ride home. He also knew what Mike would have him doing once they got there. "He had this thing called the basement drill," Ryan says. "If I didn't play well, I had to put on all my equipment except my skates and basically do a half hour of cardio after the game....
"Yeah, I definitely didn't like him at the time," Ryan laughs now. "But you look back on things like that, and I think that's why I pride myself on playing to my best every night and not leaving anything in the gas tank."
In the closing seconds of the first game between Team USA and Team Canada last February in Vancouver, Kesler turned in one of the great hustle plays in U.S. Olympic hockey history. With the Americans clinging to a 4--3 lead, he outraced Canada's Corey Perry to a seemingly innocuous dump by U.S. teammate Zach Parise into the Canadian zone. Kesler tracked Perry down like a lion on the hunt and dived from behind to the outside of the forward's left leg. Splayed on the ice and using only his left hand, Kesler swept the puck across Perry and into Canada's vacant net. "That just kind of sums up his game right there," Parise says. "He likes to outwork players, and he makes that second, third effort that a lot of guys don't."
It was the highlight of an impressive tournament for Kesler, one in which he turned even some of his most ardent haters into fans. In the first round of the 2009 playoffs, during a four-game Canucks sweep, television cameras had caught Kesler and teammate Alexandre Burrows taunting Blues forward David Backes. It was the kind of stuff the old Kesler did as a matter of routine. But after Team USA—with Backes and Kesler playing major roles—came tantalizingly close to upsetting Canada for the gold medal in Vancouver, Backes began to soften. "I've said before that I hate to play against the guy," he said. "But I'm starting to admit that I might like playing with him." Well, it's a step.
Along with his new attitude, Kesler has added to his arsenal a nasty wrist shot, one so fast it can strip a goalie clean. He's been perfecting it for more than a year, shooting 500 pucks a week at a tarp festooned with five targets. Last summer Kesler experimented with a whippier shaft but found that in games, with his adrenaline pumping, he had trouble controlling his shots. So he set aside those 82 flex sticks for practices and warmups only. They stayed in his bag until last month, in a game against Columbus, when his game stick broke late in the first period. Returning to the bench, he unknowingly grabbed one of his practice sticks. Rearmed, he exploded for his first career hat trick, scoring every Vancouver goal in a 3--2 overtime victory. It began a run that saw him score 12 goals in the next 15 games, while the Canucks went 12-1-2.
Kesler, like his Vancouver teammates, is quick to quash any sense of complacency. The Canucks have been ousted by the Blackhawks in the second round in each of the last two years. It's obvious this is not one of Kesler's favorite topics. As he tries to explain what those losses were like, he appears to travel seven months back, the discontent still evident in his face, still ringing in his voice. "No words can really explain it," he says, staring blankly ahead. "It's motivating, I guess. But at the same time, it was tough."
It's not like the new Kesler to dwell on such a thing anyway. He would rather consider the opportunities ahead. The Canucks, among the most consistent teams in the league, rank second in the Western Conference in goals scored and fewest in goals allowed. The Sedin twins—Henrik (58 points) and Daniel (61)—are on pace to top 100 this season, and goalie Roberto Luongo, after relinquishing his captaincy last summer, has had top 10 numbers in GAA (2.35) and save percentage (.922). "We don't get too high in that dressing room," says Kesler. "We're not satisfied and haven't been satisfied this entire stretch."
Making the playoffs is no longer enough in Vancouver. Only the Stanley Cup matters now.
Kesler doesn't doubt the Canucks are up to the task. "I think this is the best team we've had in the last three years," he says. "There's a different mind-set." He knows better than anyone that changing your attitude can change everything.
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"EVEN MY FRIENDS SEE A CHANGE," SAYS KESLER. "AND, UH, THEY LIKE THE NEW ME."
Photograph by JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES
QUICK ON THE DRAW Kesler is winning 56.5% of his face-offs, third best among NHL players who have taken more than 800.
KATHLEEN HINKEL/ICON SMI
DIRTY WORKER Kesler (above and left, in center) has been terrific in front of the net, where he keys the Canucks' potent power play. Along with the Sedin twins, Henrik (far left) and Daniel, he has boosted Vigneault's high-powered attack.
[See caption above]