Kesler proving his worth

KEN WIEBE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

GLENDALE, Ari. -- Ryan Kesler hated being type-cast as a defensive forward.

As much as he prided himself on being solid in his own zone, the Vancouver Canucks centre always had the speed and the skills to contribute at both ends of the rink.

Kesler put those two-way skills on display as a member of the Manitoba Moose during the 2004-05 American Hockey League season and after producing 21 goals and 37 points in 2007-08, the pride of Livonia, Mich., has taken his game to a new level this year.

With 23 goals and 53 points in 72 games, Kesler sits third on the Canucks in scoring and has established career highs for goals, assists and points.

"I'm getting more of a chance offensively and it's definitely rewarding," Kesler said after a 5-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last Saturday. "I'm finally coming into my own. I had been labeled as a defensive forward and I needed to break out of that shell."

Consider it broken.

While spending most of his first three-plus NHL seasons on the checking line, Kesler got off to a great start this season on a unit with fellow Moose graduates Jannik Hansen and Alexandre Burrows.

Kesler, 24, continued to elevate his game after Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault separated Kesler and Burrows.

Eventually, Burrows found his way onto the top line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, while Kesler has been anchoring the second unit with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra.

Kesler and Burrows often kill penalties together, but they've been thriving apart.

"When it happened, we were a little discouraged about it, but it needed to happen," said Kesler, who had 30 goals and 57 points in 78 games with the Moose in 2004-05. "We needed to spread the scoring around."

Burrows isn't the least bit surprised to see Kesler flourishing, since it wasn't that long ago that Kesler was routinely getting under the skin of guys like Jason Spezza when Spezza was a member of the Binghamton Senators.

"During the lockout year, I remember how dominant he was in the AHL. He was Randy Carlyle's guy," said Burrows. "He was playing a lot of minutes, power play, penalty kill and playing 5-on-5 against the other team's top line. He was playing with grit, speed and putting up points. Right now, he's doing the same thing at this level.

"People hate playing against him. When you've got a guy that outworks you every night, competes really hard and can make plays with his speed and his skills, it makes him tough to play against."

Vigneault believes Kesler is getting exactly what he deserves, both in terms of increased ice time and production.

"His speed obviously opens a lot of things up," said Vigneault. "When you compete and fight for pucks and go into tough areas, a lot of good things are going to happen."

The Canucks have been playing better of late and after fighting for their playoff lives in January, a recent hot streak has them in position to challenge the Calgary Flames for the Northwest Division title.

"It's definitely better than battling for eighth," said Kesler, the Canucks first round pick (23rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. "We're right there and have a chance to make real a push."


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