Before Ryan Kesler was the talk of the NHL, he was a “playmaking center or wing that can play at both ends of the rink and can also score goals” when he enrolled at Ohio State in the fall of 2002.
Said who? Said Ryan Kesler.
Those were the words he used to describe his game in the 2002-03 Ohio State men’s hockey media guide. Eight years later, that game – sharp on offense and responsible on defense – has made the one-time Buckeye forward the heart of a Stanley Cup finalist and a possible choice as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the NHL’s playoff MVP.
He continued to bolster that résumé Wednesday night in helping the Canucks win the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, assisting on the game-winning goal in the last 20 seconds. He forced a turnover at the blue line then somehow stayed onside before expertly picking out Jannik Hansen trialing the play. Hansen froze the defense and slipped a pass to Raffi Torres for the game-winning goal with 18.5 seconds left as Vancouver took a 1-0 victory.
"He's a workhorse, and he made a great second-effort play on that goal," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault told reporters. "That’s what we expect from him, and that's what we need from him on every shift."
In the postseason, he’s been one of the top players in the league. With 19 points on seven goals and 12 assists, Kesler is tied for third in the NHL in scoring, while his plus-7 rating is second on the Canucks and he has posted a minus in only three of 19 playoff contests.
That is coming on the heels of a regular season in which Kesler was discussed as a possible MVP candidate. He finished tied for fourth in the league with 41 goals and added 32 assists to go with a plus-24 rating.
So how did Kesler become one of the toughest and best players in the NHL? To Ohio State head coach John Markell, the journey began with Kesler’s upbringing. A native of Livonia, Mich., Kesler grew up playing under the watchful eye of his father, Mike, who played college hockey at Colorado College.
“I think he got a good head start on it because his family was a hockey family, and his dad did a good job of bringing him up in a hockey atmosphere,” Markell told BuckeyeSports.com. “He knew what to expect and expectations and how to handle adversity and all that. It’s just an intangible that he had that other players might not have had. It’s important in your upbringing when you want to be the type of player he wanted to be with the talent he has.”
Kesler showed plenty of talent at the start, too, as he played for the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, which brings together some of the best young talent in the country. He was a monster his final year with the NTDP, leading the team with 62 points and helping the U.S. to the IIHF Under-18 world championship while receiving best player honors.
He could have gone anywhere, but he committed to Ohio State after the NTDP downed the Buckeyes in Columbus during October 2001.
“To make a decision like that not to go to Michigan when he’s from Michigan, that’s a big decision – to go to Ohio State and take on that burden, you know what I mean?” Markell said. “How he came about that decision I never knew nor did I care when he said, ‘I’m coming to Ohio State.’ Somehow he came to that decision, and that was great for us.”
He made an immediate impact at OSU, putting up 11 goals and 31 points in 40 games for a Buckeye team that finished third in the CCHA and made the NCAA tournament. Kesler was on a squad that included future NHL players R.J. Umberger (who led the team with 26 goals and 53 points), Dave Steckel, Rod Pelley and Nate Guenin.
While at OSU, Markell said, Kesler’s main goal was to improve his production in a few specific areas.
“I think he wanted to be more of an offensive player,” he said. “He wanted that so bad. Realistically, his skating was tremendous and his checking ability was tremendous. He was away from home for the first time, so there were the little things – getting used to new teammates. People thought he might have a big ego, but he didn’t. It was just his way about going about business, and I think people misread him because he’s quiet.”
Indeed, the quiet Kesler still has a reputation as a poor interview – though he showed his personality this year by humorously lurking in the background of teammates’ interviews, earning some notoriety – but his play has more than done the talking.
He left OSU after only one year when the Canucks made him a first-round draft choice. Kesler made his debut that first season, appearing in 28 games, and quickly established himself as a regular, scoring 20 goals in each of the past three seasons and posting a career-high 50 helpers in 2009-10.
However, his Q-rating in the NHL has gone up immensely this year. Kesler spent much of the offseason working on his shot, which allowed him to set his career high in goals, and he also decided to put aside his chippy nature for the benefit of the team.
“Kesler entered the 2010-11 season with the mind-set that he had to curtail all of the extracurricular jawing and trash-talking that had always been a part of who he was as a player,” SI.com hockey expert Darren Eliot wrote May 16. “It was an element of his game that he finally concluded didn't need to be there. He's stuck to business and elevated his game.
“I think the real maturing part of it was he really stopped chirping everybody,” Markell added. “I just think it was hurting his attention, and I think that shows a tremendous maturing, when you don’t have to chirp in order to get yourself going. You just have to concentrate on your game. The worst thing you can do is deviate from your thought process of what makes you successful.”
Moving into the postseason, Kesler actually got off to a slow start, posting only three assists in the first six games as the Canucks were on the brink of a historic collapse after being up 3-0 in a series against the Chicago Blackhawks. In Game 7 of that series, Kesler was immense, posting an assist and a plus-2 rating as the Canucks won a 2-1, overtime contest.
He stepped up his scoring a series later against Nashville. In six games, Kesler had five goals and six assists, including helpers on both goals in the Canucks’ series-clinching win in Game 6.
“As I said when I was going by him, if he doesn't play that way, we're probably going to Game 7 and we might win this series, but he played to a level that is few people can reach in a series," Nashville head coach Barry Trotz told reporters afterward. “He was a force the whole series. We've used multiple people against him. He had one of those series that is absolutely remarkable for one player."
Kesler added two goals and an assist in a five-game Western Conference Finals win against San Jose. One of those goals was crucial, as he tipped in the tying tally in the final seconds of Game 5; the Canucks went on to clinch the series victory in overtime.
Whether Kesler will go on to join such legends as Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy in capturing the Conn Smythe remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt he’s made his impact on the Canucks and in the NHL.
“He was always a tremendous two-way hockey player,” Markell said. “He was good in his own end, and very responsible. I think scoring is probably what has really helped him. I think that’s the part of his game that has really matured.
“He was just a very, very good centerman. When you have physical centermen that can play down low with your defensemen, you’re going to have a very, very successful team. He makes the guys around him better, and I think that’s what you want to see in a hockey player.”