Puck Daddy - NHL

Hear the names Alex Burrows and Ryan Kelser, and what's the first label that comes to mind? Canucks? Forwards? Two guys that have never eliminated the Blackhawks in the postseason?

No, it's probably "pests."

Their agitation defined them as young players. It remained an accepted facet of their reputations, even as Kesler became a perennial Selke Trophy nominee as a top defensive center and Burrows blossomed into a 35-goal scorer. Kesler was named the No. 4 pest of the last decade by the Daily Faceoff  ("Fun to watch play the game, but always a pain the rear"). Burrows's behavior was once low-lighted in an 11-minute segment on "Hockey Night in Canada" after the Stephane Auger incident.

Canadian Readers: Click here to watch Hockey Night in Canada on Y! Sports Canada, featuring the Leafs at the Canucks (7 p.m. ET) and the Wild at the Flames (10 p.m. ET).

But in 2010, things have changed for Kesler, Burrows and the Vancouver Canucks, who face the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. ET; preview here). Welcome to hockey pests in NHL middle age.

In the 2010-11 season, Burrows has six penalty minutes in 19 games after averaging 1.6 penalty minutes per game in his previous five seasons. Metro Canada asked about his reputation as an agitator and what's changed this season:

You seem to have taken it easy on the other guys since your return, how has your injury affected that?

None. It's more about where we want to be as a team. Last year it was a tough way to lose out to Chicago. We weren't mature as a group and weren't really ready to face that kind of pressure. Being a top-line player and playing with the twins, the managers and team wanted me not to get involved with scrums as much or get under people's skin as much. They have me focusing on making plays and scoring goals. It's about being a plus player out there while being a good player defensively.

The Vancouver Sun ran a lengthy piece on Kesler this week that discussed his maturation as a player and how his 2-year-old daughter has affected his behavior on the ice -- like smashing sticks in frustration, for example.  From the Sun:

Makayla probably wouldn't approve of her dad smashing his stick at the Canuck bench, or berating referees or yelling at opponents until he looked like a clown and became more distracted than they were.

So, Ryan Kesler(notes) grew up. Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. "It's all about maturing," Kesler said when asked about his exit meetings. "I didn't take it in the wrong way at all; they want me to become a better player, a better leader every year. That was a big step for me to kind of leave that part of my game behind and focus on other parts of my game.

"I came into this league being a defensive specialist that got under other guys' skins. I think I just grew out of it and I'm just focusing on my game more. When you play whistle to whistle, it's a lot easier to play the game. The biggest reason why I changed is I was hurting the team. My play wasn't where it needed to be."

Burrows is 29. Kelser is 26. Both play for a team that's a legit Stanley Cup contender when healthy and playing well, and they've clear understood the message from management: It's more important to play smart than to goad the opponent into playing stupid.

This isn't to say that either player doesn't dabble in the dark arts of hockey agitation now and again. But the days of being synonymous with the word "pest" are over for Alex Burrows and the Ryan Kesler.

In other HNIC on Y! action:

Minnesota Wild at Calgary Flames, 10 p.m. ET: Olli Jokinen(notes) has five points in his last four games, including a 3-point game against the Leafs. But even when playing well, he's not about to care what we think, via the Calgary Herald:

"I don't read the papers.," he said. "I don't care, you know? The only criticism I hear is coming from the coaches, and that's all that matters. You know there's certain players who can't do anything right. That's the way it is.

"People say Dion Phaneuf(notes) is a bad player. He's an unbelievable player. I guess once you play well in this league and you put up the numbers, the expectations are there every year. Every night, people expect you to score."

Well, yeah.

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