Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler's had a struggle of it this season, with 12 goals and 19 assists through 41 games. Last season he had 23 goals at this point, cruising to a career-best 41 tallies after being liberated from his traditional role as the team's primary shutdown center.
But Ryan Kesler also has something that other players around the NHL crave when their performance turns underwhelming:
The benefit of the doubt.
He can slump without consequence where others -- like Roberto Luongo -- have their jobs threatened. His offseason hip surgery is attached to many criticisms as a footnote, as Kesler told the Vancouver Sun that "the first 10 or 15 games I just didn't have it, but I feel my game and skating is back to where it should be at."
He's a popular player and fits the ideal of what fans and media want to see from this team: Competitive fire, a drive to succeed and respect from the rest of the NHL's media (if not its players).
Witness the back and forth this week with Coach Alain Vigneault. The Canucks bench boss said Kesler "has to use the players around him a little bit more"; Kesler responded with bewilderment, followed by "I don't know what he means by that and if he wants to say that he can come to me and talk to me about it."
That's enough blood in the water to attract a school of media sharks … and yet the seas were calm.
It was called an "overblown media mess" and "much ado about nothing" in the Vancouver Province. Nucks Misconduct joked "Clearly Coach V has lost the room! No seriously, Rogers Arena is very big and sometimes he gets turned around." Legion of Blog turned it into a Top Gun parody.
He's Teflon, with criticisms that would stick to others gliding off of him. But as his performance, and that of his team, remain a few ticks below expectations, that could be changing.
While the coach/player molehill never became a mountain, Daniel Wagner of Pass It To Bulis (Note: Our own Harrison Mooney blogs there as well) believed that it was a "fair critique" and wrote:
In the past, Kesler has created his own space with his speed and ability to go through other players to get to the open ice. His 41 goals last season, however, have brought a little extra attention, which means that defencemen are coached on his tendencies and how to limit his strengths.
Where he would previously come flying over the blue line and unleash his wicked wristshot, defencemen are matching his speed into the zone and getting into his shooting lane more effectively, leading to his wristshots deflecting off shin pads and away from the dangerous areas of the ice.
What the Sedins do more effectively than pretty much any other player in the league is use the give-and-go to create space. Vigneault's comments indicate that this is what he wants to see from Kesler. He's not interested in Kesler getting more assists, as some people erroneously assume. Instead, he wants to see Kesler get more scoring chances by using his linemates to open up the ice.
His shots are down and most troubling, so are his five-on-five chances and goals. His five even strength goals suggest he won't be within a high arching spiral of the 23 he had last year when the season is over.
Kesler essentially has two gears. One is punch clock Kesler. The hard blue collar worker without the results. The other, you can call vintage kes or beastmode, or whatever. What is, is the difference between the Canucks being a good team and them being a Cup team
This is just anecdotal but last year, it seemed we saw Kesler's high gear in maybe 3 out of 5 games. It was a breathtaking performance that had him in the Hart discussion at this point a year ago. Expecting him to play at that pace is unfair. But this year, he's been closer to hitting a high level in about 1 out of 5 games.
Again, when the most stinging critique is that Ryan Kesler has the ability to hulk up and take over games at will but, instead, has to settle with being the hardest working player on the Canucks, we're not exactly talking about a player being tossed into a trash heap here.
But one man's working class hero is another man's overrated player. Kesler believes he's starting to come around offensively. If he doesn't, will the criticisms become less conditional and scathing?