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With offensive boost, Kesler's making most of his noise on ice

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Ryan Kesler said he was really ticked off about something, although not to the point of doing anything that might have been costly.

Besides, Kesler had scored a highlight reel goal earlier in Phoenix, and his Vancouver Canucks beat the Coyotes in a blowout to widen their lead at the top of the NHL's overall standings. Kesler added another goal later in the game to join Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos as the only players with at least 30 this season.

And yet what Kesler was thinking about when he talked to reporters after the game was an incident on the ice. He just wouldn't say what it was.

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"I don't want to get fined, so I don't want to say anything more," Kesler said.

Yes, the less said, the better.

Kesler didn't do that very well earlier in his career. It's why the scrappy 26-year-old center was known as much for being a "chirper" on the ice as for anything else. But it's a lesson Kesler has clearly taken to heart and apparently a big reason he has become even more of an impact player for Vancouver than in the past.

"Ryan's trying to focus on what he needs to do on the ice instead of getting distracted on what's going on after," said coach Alain Vigneault. "He's playing whistle to whistle, and when he's focused on that, he's a very good player."

In fact, Kesler may be the best all-around American player in the NHL today. He's certainly one of the league's top defensive forwards, an annual candidate for the Selke Trophy in the past couple of seasons and widely considered the favorite to win it this year. But while Kesler has long shown the ability to kill penalties, win important faceoffs and block shots, this season he has added more offense to his repertoire and already surpassed his career-best scoring total.

It made Kesler an easy choice for the All-Star Game in what seems like a breakout season to everyone except those around him.

So far this season, Kesler has 30 goals and 20 assists. (Getty Images)  
So far this season, Kesler has 30 goals and 20 assists. (Getty Images)  
"I think if anyone is surprised by what he's doing, it's because they don't really see him enough," said Henrik Sedin, the reigning league MVP. "He's a very good player who does a lot of things very well, and he had a very good season last year, too.

"This is just a continuation."

Well maybe a little bit more. The Canucks are a well-constructed team with a strong group of defensemen, but they remain powered by the lethal combination of Sedin and his twin brother, Daniel, and the goaltending of Roberto Luongo. Still, the added offense Vancouver is getting from secondary sources, most notably Kesler, has turned the Canucks into a team that looks very capable of avoiding a third consecutive second-round exit from the playoffs.

The Canucks were eliminated both times by the Blackhawks, with last spring's defeat, when Vancouver blew an opportunity to take control of the series, particularly painful. But Kesler thinks it has paid dividends this season. The Canucks have sat at or near the top of the standings most of the way, they have the NHL's top offense, its third-best defense and went through a ridiculous 20-game stretch when they won 17 times and picked up points in two of the other games.

"Losing like we did last year was really tough, but we definitely learned something and that's the way it should be," Kesler said. "We know we made a lot of mistakes that cost us, but those kinds of things are supposed to make you stronger, and I think it has. We all came back this season ready to go."

No one more than Kesler. On an individual level, he had a career-best 75 points last season and a starring role in Team USA's run to the Olympic gold medal game. But after spending the summer working to improve his sniping talents, Kesler is scoring more than ever.

"I'm shooting a lot more and probably better I think," Kesler said. "But a lot of the time, it's about getting to the net and working for the goals."

Especially on the power play. Kesler has found a home there, with the Canucks moving him onto the top unit with the Sedins for the first time. Kesler has scored 10 times with the man advantage, and his presence in front of the net has helped Vancouver's produce the league's third-best conversion rate.

"He's got size and the hand-eye co-ordination to tip pucks, but the biggest thing is that he's tough to move out from the front of the net," Vigneault said. "Getting that net presence is really one of the keys to having an effective power play, and he gives that to us."

Kesler doesn't mind doing the dirty work either. Kind of enjoys it, he says. Especially now that he's focused on the bigger picture.

"I've definitely approached this season with a different attitude, you know not sweating the small stuff," Kesler said. "It's a different focus for me, I guess.

"But I think it's different this year for the whole team. We know what we can do, we just have to go out and do it."

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