Similar to the fine work nucksandpucks is doing counting down the top seasons in franchise history, over the coming weeks I will be profiling the top 10 Canucks draft picks of all-time. Researching this series has taken me down some dark alleys, such as the Wikipedia page of the team's draft history. Truthfully though, for a franchise often criticized for its performance at the draft, the Canucks have had their share of gems over the past 42 years...they just didn't always hold on to them for very long. Players on this list were selected based on both their impact on the franchise and their contributions to the game of hockey in general, with slightly more emphasis given to the former.
#6: Ryan Kesler
Drafted: 2003, round one, 23rd overall
Seasons with the Canucks: 9 and counting
When attempting to define Ryan Kesler and his importance to the Vancouver Canucks, hockey writers often resort to cliches like "he's the straw that stirs the drink", "he's the engine that drives the team", or "he's the one driving the bus". This begs the questions: if Kesler is both the engine AND the driver, does that make him the SkyTrain? And if so, why is his nickname not RyTrain? This needs to be a thing.
Anyway, my point is this: Ryan Kesler is good. Very good. He must be, because he's my choice as the 6th best draft pick in Canucks history, and he's only just entering the prime of his career.
In addition to his considerable on-ice abilities is the effect Kesler's pressence has on the rest of the lineup. When he is anchoring that second line, everyone else seems to fall into place behind him. The Sedin twins may be the offensive force behind the Canucks, but Kesler is the one that balances and completes the attack. Looking at the recent history of the team proves this: Vancouver only truly contended for a Stanley Cup when Ryan Kesler became an elite forward in 2010.
Kesler was taken 23rd overall in 2003 in what has proved to be maybe the deepest draft in NHL history. It took Kesler a few years longer to become a star than some of the other first round picks from that year — Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards — but he has matured into one of the best two-way forwards from that draft.
Much like #9 on this list of best Canucks draft picks, Kesler's early career with Vancouver was marked by controversy surrounding an offer sheet. After putting up a modest 23 points in his first full season in the NHL in 2006, Kesler signed a one-year, 1.9M offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers. Two things strike me looking back at this: how ridiculous would it have been for the Flyers to end up with Kesler, Jeff Carter AND Mike Richards, three of the best players from that 2003 draft? Secondly, it's hilarious to think that 1.9M was ever considered a lot of money for Ryan Kesler. I think we can all agree that matching that offer sheet was one of the smarter things Dave Nonis did as GM of the Canucks.
The 2008-09 season was when we really started to get a glimpse of the player Kesler would become and is now. A big factor in his development was the arrival of Mats Sundin, who's presence in the lineup bought Kesler the opportunity to transition from anchoring the 3rd line to playing a scoring role in the top six, a role which he has never relinquished. Kesler finished the season with 26 goals, 59 points, and his first Selke Trophy nomination beside Pavel Datsyuk and fellow 2003 first rounder Mike Richards.
Kesler would put up 75 and 73 points over the next two seasons, which included a 41 goal campaign, a Selke Trophy win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011. He developed his once-laughable wristshot into one of the deadliest in the game, the main reason for his sudden 40 goal explosion.
Maybe most significant of all has been Kesler's evolution into a more mature hockey player. He had always been the type to yap at opponents in an attempt to get them off their game, but more often than not it was doing just the opposite. A number of factors contributed to Kesler's change in attitude: being named an Alternate Captain in 2008, playing alongside Mats Sundin for half a season, a meeting with Canucks management after the 2010 season, and becoming a father.
Which brings us to the present day. On the precipice of a 48-game season, the RyTrain is derailed for the foreseeable future. The removal of Kesler from the lineup suddenly makes it appear very vulnerable. It almost goes without saying that if the Canucks hope to win anything this season, they're going to need Kesler at full capacity. Even more rare than a true #1 centre in the NHL is one capable of scoring 40 goals while killing penalties and shutting down opposing stars. Much like Cory Schneider the past two seasons backing up Roberto Luongo, Ryan Kesler playing behind Henrik Sedin is a luxury that the Canucks need in order to contend. He's the key to the Canucks success in 2013.
The good news is that, unlike last season, Kesler and the Canucks insist that he will not return until he is 100%. In the meantime, if the forwards can hold their ground with the likes of Jordan Schroeder, Andrew Ebbett and Max Lapierre at centre, imagine the boost it will bring when Kesler does return, hopefully in the best shape we've seen since his dominant 2011 season. That would be an addition bigger than any Mike Gillis could make at the trade deadline, and certainly bigger than any return he expects to get for Roberto Luongo.
In the meantime, why not come up with some new nicknames? Seriously. RyTrain. Think about it.
Previous entries in the Top 10 Canucks Draft Picks series:
10. Patrik Sundstrom
7. Cam Neely