The Vancouver Canucks will eventually start playing hockey again, and after inducting Alex Burrows into the Ring of Honour in December, which seems so long ago now, it’s only a matter of time before we see another fan favourite get immortalized on the walls of Rogers Arena. The question is, who will that be? In the next series of articles, I will endeavour to answer this very question, starting with long-time Canuck Ryan Kesler.
Kesler’s Humble Beginnings as a Checking Line Center
From the moment Kesler played his first season in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose, it was clear that he was going to be an NHL player. Though I don’t think anyone foresaw the impact he was going to make on the Canucks and the NHL as a whole. He began as a very effective bottom-six forward, but ultimately became one of the best two-way power forwards in the entire league.
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When the Canucks were starting to become a force to be reckoned with, Kesler centered one of the NHL’s most effective two-way checking lines. Along with the equally frustrating Burrows and the feisty Jannik Hansen, they helped make it a nightmare to face the Canucks each and every night.
Kesler’s Rise to the Second Line
There was a time when Kesler’s potential was capped as a third line center. His playmaking abilities were limited and his hands at times could not catch up to his feet. It wasn’t until then-general manager Mike Gillis signed veteran center Mats Sundin to a one-year contract that he started to look like an offensive presence in the NHL.
Many Canucks fans and media pundits point to Mats Sundin’s time with the Canucks as meaningless, but as it turns out Kesler begs to differ.
That’s when Burr was coming into his own and our third-line guys were turning into first- and second-line guys. Mats really helped. Not only my career, but he had a big impact on the Sedins’ career too. I wish he would’ve stayed one more year, because I think we possibly would have won it, but that’s hindsight. I think 2009 was the time I was like, “Okay, we can do this.”Ryan Kesler on Mats Sundin
Even though he only spent one season as a member of the Canucks, Sundin made a huge impact on several players that went on to have very successful NHL careers. I think that’s worth the one-year, $10 million dollar contract he received at the time.
Kesler broke out that season with 26 goals and 59 points in 82 games playing on a line with Sundin and the late-Pavol Demitra. After that, he went on to have four more campaigns of 20 goals or more including a career-high 41 goals in 2010-11. His impact on the Canucks’ top-six went beyond offence as well as he continued his yeomen’s work on the penalty kill and remained the matchup center as well. He also became a key part of the power play with the Sedins, scoring a total of 61 career goals. Without a doubt, they had one of the NHL’s best one-two punches down the middle for close to five seasons.
Kesler Activates Beast Mode in Music City
Ryan Kesler’s best season in the NHL came in 2010-11 when the Canucks made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. He dominated the league with 41 goals and 73 points, ending the season with a much deserved Selke Trophy. Not only that, but he was also undoubtedly one of the team’s top forwards in the playoffs. Although he was shut down offensively in the first round versus the Chicago Blackhawks in a matchup role against the formidable Jonathan Toews, he still made his presence known. The Blackhawks’ captain only had four points in seven games and was constantly bombarded by Kesler’s relentless defensive work.
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After going scoreless in the first round, Kesler activated Beast Mode in the second round against the Nashville Predators. If not for him, the Canucks would not have made it to the third round, as the Sedins and the rest of the offence were basically shut down.
Kesler not only resumed his role as the matchup center, but he also became the team’s number one offensive weapon. By the end of the series, he had 5 goals and 11 points in six games. Long story short, the Predators just couldn’t tame the beast that was Kesler.
Unfortunately, that edition of Kesler was only seen against the Predators as he only had four points the rest of the playoffs, including none in the Finals against the Boston Bruins. It was found out later that he suffered an injury in Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks. So if not for that, he probably would have continued his dominant play in the Finals and potentially could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as well. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, because a healthy Kesler would have thrived in what turned out to be a very physical and intense series.
Regardless of the final outcome, Kesler was one of the most important fixtures on the Canucks during one of their most successful runs in the NHL. He brought it all from heart, physicality, speed, tenacity, grit, and above all a relentless drive to shut down the best. He declined a bit after that season, never hitting 70 points again. Despite that, Canucks fans will always remember Kesler activating Beast Mode in 2011.
Kesler’s Fall Out With Canucks Nation
Like all NHL players, Kesler had a desire to win the Stanley Cup, and after coming so close in 2011, he wanted the same chance again. The Canucks were starting to become a shell of their former self in 2013-14, so he decided that he wanted to leave the confines of Rogers Arena. Towards the end of the season, Kesler demanded a trade to a contender, which he ultimately got in the form of the Anaheim Ducks.
Though, before that fact became public, there were reports that Kesler had requested it at the beginning of the season and even discussed it in a Russian bar during the 2014 Olympics. Kesler and his agent went on record saying it wasn’t true, but ultimately before the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign, he was on a plane out of Vancouver. There was even talk about him being traded at the deadline that year.
It wasn’t the trade request that irked Canucks Nation, it was the comments he made after he was traded. He didn’t’ want to be here anymore and he wasn’t afraid to say so. He was also just 29 and was giving up on a franchise that could have remained contenders with him on the roster. Not only that, but he also handcuffed new general manager Jim Benning by giving him just two teams to negotiate with. Basically, he was being selfish, and that just didn’t sit very well with Canucks fans.
Kesler’s Redemption in Vancouver
After five seasons of boos as a member of the Ducks and subsequent forced retirement due to chronic hip problems, Kesler is starting to redeem himself in the eyes of Canucks fans. He came out to fully explain his decision to leave the team in 2014 and was even met with a standing ovation on his return to Rogers Arena during the Sedins’ jersey retirement ceremony.
It appears all is forgiven, as Kesler mended fences in the weeks and months leading up to his return. It also helped that the Sedins had everything good to say about him and his contributions to the Canucks.
He’s meant a lot to us…He drove up our team. When he was at his best, he took away the other team’s best players and he put up a lot of points. He pushed us in practice. I think this city should look at him as a very good player. He’s a good person. I think people that know him know he’s a good guy.Daniel Sedin
The only thing you need to remember is how good he was when he was here…The team had been through its peak and he wanted to move on. That’s not the first guy that’s wanted to move on from the team. He was a really big part of the best team that we’ve been on and maybe the best team that’s played in this franchise. That’s all you got to think about.Henrik Sedin
In the end, Kesler was just following his desire to win a championship. He handled it the wrong way, but he’s realized his mistake and is now a positive figure in Canucks lore once again. He continues to add to his legacy in podcast form with the equally entertaining Kevin Bieksa. I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.
Kesler Deserves to be Recognized
Despite his unceremonious exit from Vancouver, we shouldn’t forget the many contributions he made to the Canucks during the decade he was here. He was a unique blend of size, speed, and two-way acumen with a loveable personality to boot. We may have lost sight of that in the seasons after he left, but I’m happy to see that Canucks Nation has started to remember the old Kesler we enjoyed before he made that infamous trade request.
Ultimately Kesler, like Burrows before him, deserves to be recognized for his role in building one of the most dominant teams in the Canucks’ 50-year history. He bled blue and green for ten seasons and laid it all on the ice even with an injury that would have shelved most players. He wanted the puck in the key moments, even when he was hurt. Not only that, but he also delivered in those moments as well.
That tying goal set the stage for one of the most bizarre goals in Canucks history when Kesler’s long-time buddy Bieksa hammered the puck that sent them to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1994. Say what you want about him, but he is and always will be a Canuck. We may have forgotten that for a while, but in the end, it was always true. So let’s make it official and anoint him as the next player to be immortalized on the walls of Rogers Arena.
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Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.
Matthew also co-hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube.