VANCOUVER – Ryan Kesler is letting his production do the talking.
The big centre has been a silent weapon for the Vancouver Canucks this NHL season, scoring crucial goals and making big defensive plays. All the while he’s keeping his mouth in check and his mind on the game.
It hasn’t always been that way. There used to be nights when Kesler would yap and chirp at the opposition. While his tongue was sharp, he sometimes lost the point of the game.
“Last year I think I hurt the team and hurt myself when I was running my mouth a lot,” Kesler said after the Canucks practice Thursday.
“I think I’ve matured as a human being over the past couple of months. It’s just helped me on the ice. When you play whistle to whistle it’s a lot easier to play the game.”
Being the big, quiet type has resulted in Kesler playing some of his best hockey.
He scored all three goals in Vancouver’s 3-2 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets Wednesday. It was the first hat trick of his seven-year NHL career and also his 12th game-winning goal.
In 29 games this year Kesler has 15 goals, second on the Canucks, and 24 points. He’s has three, two-goal games. Six of his goals have come as part of the Canucks’ first-unit power play.
At six-foot-two and 200 pounds, Kesler combines speed and power. His quickness can leave a defenceman grasping at air.
“I’m no dummie,” the 26-year-old native of Livonia, Mich., said with a grin. “I know my best attribute is my speed.
“When I’m skating it seems to be I am creating more offence for myself.”
But Kesler is more than a scoring threat. He kills penalties and takes important faceoffs. He leads all Canuck forwards by averaging over 20 minutes of ice time a game.
“He’s out there in every critical situation we can come up with,” said Rick Bowness, Vancouver’s associate coach. “He’s doing everything for us.”
Early in the third period of Wednesday’s game Kesler showed his defensive instincts. He sprawled flat out on the ice to knock the puck off Derick Brassard’s stick on a dazzling play that had Rogers Arena buzzing.
“I’ve always taken pride in my defence,” said Kesler, who has been nominated the last two years for the Frank Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top defensive forward. “It’s something that got me into the league.
“The past couple of years my offensive game has come around. At the same time I’m not going to let my defensive game slide at all.”
Kesler had a career high 50 assists and 75 points, plus 104 penalty minutes last season, despite playing the last part of the year with a bad shoulder. As a member of the U.S. team at the Vancouver Olympics he scored two goals, including one in the final against Canada.
Prior to the season, Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault talked with Kesler. They told him to tone down the trash talk and concentrate on his game.
“They wanted me to become a better leader, a better player every year,” said Kesler. “The biggest reason I changed was I was hurting my team. My play wasn’t where it needed to be.
“You grow out of that stuff. I came into this league being a defensive specialist that got under the other guy’s skin. For me to continue playing I just grew out of it and I am just focusing on my game.”
Bowness said Kesler continues to play with passion. The difference is he’s learned to harness his emotions.
“He plays the game every night the same way,” said Bowness. “It’s all out.
“What he’s learned to do is keep the focus. Sometimes you can get distracted with all the chirping and talking and trying to throw other people off their game verbally. All the focus right now is playing hard and throwing people off their game physically, as opposed to verbally.”
An adjustment Kesler has made this year is being on the league’s top-ranked power play with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“Playing with the twins, they are going to have the puck most of the time,” he said. “Last year I had the puck most of the time on the power play.
“Now I have learned how to play without the puck and how to get open for them. It’s been a big difference in my game.”
Instead of quarterbacking the power play, Kesler now often finds himself in front of the net, where he’s taking slashes and cross-checks.
“It’s not fun when you get beat up in front of the net like that,” he said. “It’s part of the job and you learn to deal with it.”
The Canuck fans now cheering Kesler can thank former general manager Dave Nonis for keeping the gritty centre in Vancouver.
Prior to the 2006 season Kesler was a restricted free agent coming off a 23-point year. Bobby Clarke, who was then the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, signed him to a one-year, US$1.9-million offer sheet.
Nonis had negotiated a deal that would have paid Kesler around US$900,000. Sensing Kesler’s potential, Nonis matched Clarke’s offer.
Kesler has not spent a lot of time wondering how different life might have been had he become a Flyer.
“It hasn’t even entered my mind.”