When Ryan Kesler inked his six-year, $41.25-million contract extension with the Anaheim Ducks, the deal was roundly derided. Six more years for a 31-year-old pivot whose style of play dictated that has his best years were likely behind him? There was no way it would work out favorably for the Ducks, and certainly not when Anaheim should be focusing more on its future than its present with an aging star duo up front.
And while the long-term outlook on the deal still isn’t all that great, no one could have guessed how outstanding the short-term would be. Kesler isn’t about to win the Hart Trophy this season and he’s not going to take home the Art Ross, but the Selke Trophy is a real possibility for Kesler in his first season of the new deal. He deserves the praise, too, because he’s become the best game-in, game-out player Anaheim has had this season.
Part of Kesler’s solid campaign has been his offensive production, an area where he's seen somewhat of a resurgence this season. His 19 goals and 47 points through 66 games are good enough to put him second in goals, points and points per game of all Ducks skaters, and his numbers are among the best he’s had over the past several seasons. In fact, if Kesler maintains his pace to end the year, he’s set to finish with 24 goals and 59 points, which would mark the best offensive season he’s had in the past half-decade. Not since his remarkable 41-goal, 71-point season has Kesler reached such offensive heights.
In the early part of the season, Kesler was as good a scorer as the Ducks had, too. For much of the first two months of the season, the Ducks’ duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were struggling to find the score sheet consistently, but Kesler was leading the charge with 12 goals and 31 points. Yes, his scoring has slowed, but that's not to say his impact has followed. That’s because the best case for Kesler’s contributions doesn't come from his play on the offensive side of the puck.
His point totals are impressive, no doubt, but it’s what Kesler has done in all three zones throughout the campaign that makes him the Ducks' MVP, hands-down. In terms of taking on top minutes and playing a sizeable role defensively, Kesler has been among the top centers in the league, and he’s been as reliable as any player in the league when it comes to a 200-foot game. His Selke credentials are rather solid.
Entering the final weeks of the season, Kesler’s 21:33 average ice time is tops among all Ducks pivots and second in the entire league. His ice time is indicative of just how much coach Randy Carlye has relied on Kesler, especially when you consider that Getzlaf, Perry and Rickard Rakell are all chasing Kesler in terms of time on ice. And if there’s any greater indication of the importance of the minutes Kesler’s playing, consider that when the Ducks are in need of a big defensive stop, it’s Kesler who gets the call. At 185:26, Kesler has skated an hour more than any other Ducks forward shorthanded, and the only players in the entire league who’ve seen more time on the penalty kill are the Capitals’ Jay Beagle and Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman.
Kesler isn’t only being trotted out in the defensive zone during the penalty kill, though. Rather, Carlyle has relied on Kesler to be his top defensive center this season. Nearly 40 percent of Kesler’s shifts at 5-on-5 have started in the defensive zone, and he's proven more than equal to the task. Kesler has produced a 53.1 Corsi for percentage, which, among Ducks forwards, ranks behind only that of Andrew Cogliano and Ondrej Kase. And Kesler has managed the strong possession numbers while playing top competition. Kesler’s average on-ice competition at 5-on-5 ranks among the best in the league for players who’ve seen similar ice time.
And while the value of faceoffs has been argued, it’s hard to ignore what Kesler has done in the circle. He’s second in the league with an outstanding 844 faceoff wins and fifth in winning percentage among those who’ve taken at least 100 draws at 58.2 percent. Combine that with Kesler’s possession numbers, importance to the Ducks’ sixth-ranked penalty kill and the level of competition he’s playing at even strength on a regular basis and it’s clear the impact Kesler has had. That's without including the production he's had withthe puck on his stick. Without him this season, the Ducks could have had a much tougher time in the wide-open Pacific.
As the post-season rolls around, Kesler stands to become even more important for Anaheim. His already team-leading ice time will almost assuredly see a bump, he’s likely to take more of the draws that are deemed must-wins and his pesky, in-your-face style of play is sure to become one of the stories of the series no matter who the Ducks draw in the first round. And it would seem there’s a good chance Kesler earns himself another nod for the Selke — or at least an appearance among the finalists — regardless of the result when the campaign ends. It would be his first win since 2010-11, and the fifth time in 12 years he’s finished as a finalist.
There’s no telling what’s going to come to pass in the years that follow the 2016-17 campaign, and Kesler’s style of play will assuredly take a toll on his body as the years go on. But in the first year of the contract, the first season since his new deal was met with incredulity and head scratching, Kesler is proving to be every bit the player that signed the big money deal. And at least for the time being, Kesler’s contract is paying off for everyone involved.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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