Photo via wikimedia commons.
On the list of "reasons the Vancouver Canucks were swept in the first round by San Jose," the performance of Ryan Kesler probably doesn’t show up in the top-five for most people. It does for me. While Kesler had a dynamite 30 minutes in the second game of the series, an impressive display no doubt, it mostly served to disguise "the beast’s" larger issues on those rare occassions when he was in the lineup in 2013…
The fact of the matter is that in limited appearances, Kesler was unable to drive play this past season in the fashion to which we’ve become accustomed. That was true in the regular season and was especially clear during Vancouver’s short stint in the playoffs, as the Canucks controlled only 25% of the scoring chances with Ryan Kesler on the ice at even-strength against San Jose. In other words, Kesler fared worse by the chance data than even Derek Roy (40%) who didn’t show up.
Read past the jump for more…
Heading into what promises to be a busy and fascinating offseason, one of the hardest things to evaluate about the Canucks’ core is what the team can really expect out of Kesler going forward. He has gone under the knife three times in the past two years, and if he isn’t a two-way top-six force anymore, then this group is very far away indeed from realistically competing for a championship.
If, on the other hand, Kesler’s performance this past season was a blip, and his inability to drive play had more to do with fitness than any lingering or degenerative ailment to his hip, wrist or shoulder, then the Canucks might be in better shape than they superficially appear.
Here’s what we can say with a good degree of confidence about Kesler: even when he’s hobbled and a shadow of his former self at five-on-five, he’s the straw that stirs the drink for the Canucks on special teams (the power-play in particular). Also, it’s at least possible that Kesler has put in enough offseason work on that nasty wrist shot of his that he’ll be able to drive offense somewhat (13 points in 17 games) even if his even-strength effectiveness continues to atrophy.
Beyond that though, it gets dicey. Certainly Ryan Kesler wouldn’t be the first player of his type—a type that relies on athletic gifts like speed, and an uninhibited physical style to be effective—to have their game fall off precipitously in their late 20s.
If you’re the Canucks, I think, you have to roll the dice on Kesler returning to form (or close to it) next season. If Kesler is the sort of player he was from 2008 through to 2011, the Canucks have one of the better one-two punches at centre in the league. It’s not the worst gamble, especially because no one on the roster hates losing more than Kesler, and it’s clear that he lives and breathes hockey. Are you even prepared for the flood of training camp stories chronicling at length how absurdly in-shape Kesler is following the first summer in three years in which he won’t have been on a rehabilitation program?
Still, on the Kesler front, the Canucks should adhere to the principal this summer of "hoping for the best, and preparing for the worst." Which is a tall task in a barren unrestricted free agent market.
Needless to say, the Canucks were woefully unprepared for Kesler’s second injury this past season, which was a tough break, not to mention the forced retirement of Manny Malhotra, which they should’ve been ready for. In a newly formed division next season where the Canucks will be competing with the likes of the Kings, Sharks, Ducks, Oilers and Coyotes for four playoff spots, well, the team simply can’t afford to go with Henrik Sedin, Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Ebbett down the middle…
There are a couple of moves that, in my view, the team can make to limit their exposure. The first is a bit counter-intuitive but it involves keeping David Booth on the books for next season at least. There’s no doubt that Booth has been a disappointment in Vancouver—partly because of injury and partly because he’s very probably a shooting percentage outlier. Though I doubt he’ll ever score enough to justify his contract, he is one of the league’s super-elite play driving wingers, and that’s valuable (even if it’s not quite worth 4.5 million per season if it comes unattached to the odd goal).
Anyway, if Kesler’s big issue going forward is that he struggles at even-strength, putting him with a player like Booth who can dominate in transition and down low could be a partial sollution. If it’s not, then you buy out Booth next summer. For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought the notion that "Kesler and Booth have no chemistry" was horse manure anyway…
Another thing for the Canucks to look at is acquiring some type of legitimate Kesler insurance for next season. In an ideal world, the Canucks—who will very probably allow Maxim Lapierre to walk in free agency this July—should prioritize signing, or trading for two "bottom-six" centreman who can credibly play up the lineup if required. So we’re talking about a fourth-line centre that Vancouver’s coaches are comfortable slotting into the top-9 (which they weren’t with Lapierre), and a third-line centre who can legitimately play in the top-six.
This is where it gets tough, because there just isn’t much to choose from in free-agency in terms of "third-line centres you could see bumping into the top-six if necessary." A partial (and not all that desirable) list: Nik Antropov, Stephen Weiss, Derek Roy, Tyler Bozak, Andy MacDonald, and Valtteri Filppula.
Meanwhile, in terms of fourth-line centres who can probably play in your top-nine without hurting you over the medium term, there’s Boyd Gordon. But he’s likely to re-sign in Phoenix, and after that it gets pretty barren. Maybe David Steckel, or Keith Aucoin? You could, I suppose, take a flier on local boy Mike Santorelli, or maybe target Peter Regin as a reclamation project on the cheap…
We should mention that the Canucks have a couple of players in the system who might fit the bill in Schroeder, Brendan Gaunce and Kellan Lain. I think Schroeder is an NHL player, truly, but he’s going to have surgery this summer and may not be ready to start the season. Beyond that, I’d be surprised if either Gaunce or Lain were ready to contribute in a meaningful way for a winning NHL team by the fall of 2013.
So, yeah, there aren’t many good options available to Mike Gillis at the centre position—at least not in the system or in free-agency. But it’s the club’s single biggest area of need and it has been, frankly, ever since Malhotra nearly lost an eye in a freak accident late in the 2010-11 season. If the Canucks can move some talent on the blueline (be it Chris Tanev or Alex Edler) to get a quality middle of-the-lineup centre with upside then that’s something they’ll have to very seriously explore, I’d think.
Whether the Canucks solve that riddle or not, how Kesler rebounds from his injury-plagued 2013 will likely have a decisive influence on whether next season is successful or soul-crushing. With so much riding on a player who we simply can’t project with any certainty going forward, it’s on Gillis to figure out a solid insurance plan. He’ll simply have to do better than he’s done at the trade deadline the past two years.