Ryan Kesler had a breakout season last year with 59 points in 82 games. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
It’s a little too soon and tacky to say the Vancouver Canucks need a hero.
But the left-coasters could undoubtedly use a lift.
Most believe that charge must originate from the crease, where Roberto Luongo has been more Bobby Lose – even Bobby Booed – than the sweet Bobby Lou Canucks fans have come to adore.
That trend has all the staying power of Cooperalls.
True, Luongo’s struggles are made a touch more troubling by the fact last season ended on a sour note for him and the club, but better play from the Canucks goalie is as assured as the tide.
The player I believe needs to take Vancouver by the throat and drag them out of an early-season rut and beyond is Ryan Kesler. On a team where the captain stands in the crease and the two most skilled players are frequently mistaken for each other, but never Mark Messier, there’s need for a leader like Kesler, who has enough skill and will to be a defining skater on any NHL club.
(Come to think of it, references to Mark Messier’s leadership abilities might be lost on Canuck fans.)
To be clear, I’m not one of those who contends the Sedins are incapable of leading a team to glory based on the fact more than their hands are soft. My go-to “for example” on this remains how nobody thought Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk had the gumption to lead a team to glory – until they did.
Maybe the Sedins have it in them, too, but Kesler, for my money, shows all the signs of a guy ready to assume the role of team bus driver.
Fourth-liners who fling themselves in front of shots or gleefully go face-first into the boards are easy to identify as grinders whose contributions go beyond what their actual athletic ability should dictate. Kesler is a higher form of that. His baseline skill set his better than most, yet not elite, but he consistently exceeds the parameters of what his god-given ability suggests he should provide.
He’s basically Mike Richards West, as long as we acknowledge nobody does what he does as well as Richards, a player whose two-way, jam-filled game is without equal right now.
Still, despite a 25-point chasm in potential offensive output, there are undeniable points of comparison between Kesler and Richards, starting with the fact Kesler was taken 23rd overall, one spot ahead of Richards in the 2003 draft.
They were also potential teammates when former Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke signed Kesler to an RFA offer sheet in the summer of 2006. I suspect tendering that offer, which Vancouver obviously matched, may have had more to do with Clarke recognizing what Kesler has in common with a former Flyer captain as much as any similarities with Philly’s current ‘C’ bearer.
Keith Primeau had finally succumbed to the concussion problems that plagued him throughout his career when Clarke went after Kesler. (Kesler, it should be noted, can become an RFA again next summer.)
The last season before the lockout, Primeau led the Flyers to within one game of the Stanley Cup final with an inspired playoff performance that saw him net nine goals and 16 points in 18 games. Primeau never scored more than 73 points in a season over his career, which is about where I’d put Kesler’s absolute high-end potential. But no Flyer – regardless of talent level – did more to advance Philly’s cause than Primeau that year.
Kesler fits that mold.
If Canucks fans want an example that hits closer to home, take a look at the banner hanging at GM Place in honor of Trevor Linden. The second overall pick from 1988 hit the 70-point barrier just four times in his career, but was slightly better than a point-per-game player during Vancouver’s run to the ’94 Cup final. That’s because the kind of game Linden deployed does wonders for a team when space becomes sparse and every inch must be earned.
We’re nowhere near that time of year yet, but the Canucks could use a bit of that skill-injected grit it once got from No. 16 – and No. 17 is just the man to provide it.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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