- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The taxi driver wanted to know. So did the guy making our sub sandwich, and the arena staffer who greeted us. So did the friendly hotel concierge and the smiling waitress at dinner.
They all wanted to know: Is this finally the year?
In their 40th-anniversary season, the Vancouver Canucks have never looked this dominant, and the city is buzzing with anticipation. It's been 18 years since a Stanley Cup was brought home on this side of the border, and the whole country could use a winner.
And if Vancouver -- Canada's best bet to end that drought -- wants to capture its first NHL championship, it will need an American to pull it off.
Ryan Kesler is playing the most impressive hockey of his NHL career, an irreplaceable force on a team seemingly built for this moment. And his continued evolution as one of the NHL's premier two-way centers is arguably the most important development this season as the Canucks try to take the next step in their playoff journey.
To watch Kesler play is to see a player comfortable in all areas of the ice. Take a key faceoff, block a shot, be the first forward back on the backcheck, finish a check, screen the goalie on power plays, kill penalties the two-time Selke Trophy nominee does it all.
"Particularly at the center-ice position, you have to have guys that log big minutes and play in a variety of different situations," Canucks GM Mike Gillis told ESPN.com this week. "[Ryan is] on our first power-play unit, he's our first penalty killer, he's playing in every situation. He's been a critical part of our team, our advancement, and I anticipate will continue to be in the playoffs."
Teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin have continued to do their thing this season, and the Swedish twins are a nearly unstoppable 1-2 punch on the top line. But it's the second-line production of Kesler that has made the Northwest Division and Western Conference leaders much more dangerous, as the Canucks attempt to get over the playoff hump after two straight second-round exits.
Kesler's offensive breakthrough came last season when he tallied 25 goals and 75 points. This season, he's taken his game to another level. The 26-year-old native of Livonia, Mich., is headed to his first career All-Star Game this weekend (a no-brainer selection), and is on pace for 40-plus goals and close to 80 points. His 27th goal Monday night against the visiting Dallas Stars already set a career high (it was a goal like many of his others, deftly deflecting a point shot on net). He is also seeing regular first-unit power-play opportunities for the first time.
"It's been one of those things where every year you look at the season before and you want to get better," Kesler told ESPN.com. "You want to become a more complete player. This year was no different, and I think I've taken big strides."
His father and longtime hockey coach Mike Kesler never doubted his son had this kind of game in him.
"I think he's proven to people what he could do all along," the proud papa said in a phone interview with ESPN.com. "We're really proud of what he's accomplished. The bottom line is that he worked so hard and that's the way he's always played."
Hard work paying off? Take Kesler's shot, for example.
When Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen made a blocker save on Kesler on Monday night, it was awkward. It was clear that Kesler's wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle had taken the netminder by surprise, perhaps because of the quick release or the heaviness of it.
That wicked shot was not a weapon for Kesler when he entered the NHL. Three summers ago, he went back home to Michigan and decided he needed to work on it. He was a good player at that point, but to get to the next level, he believed he needed to fine-tune his shot. At his offseason home in West Bloomfield, Kesler set up shop in his garage with a shooting target and rarely took a day off.
"He literally has taken 100 to 200 shots a day every summer for the last three years," his father said. "He's really improved his shot."
Kesler said he's going to install RapidShot (a high-end shooting training system) in his garage this offseason.
There were other adjustments for Kesler.
At the conclusion of last season, which ended with another second-round exit against the Chicago Blackhawks, Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault sat down with Kesler and teammate Alex Burrows. The message: Enough with the yapping on the ice.
"We felt that our evolution as a team wasn't going to be complete unless those guys got a little less interested in trash-talking with the opposition and getting this affected by the outside part of the game than if they ignored that and just played," Gillis said. "We encouraged Ryan and gave him examples of other players around the league that had been very successful, both individually and on good teams that have won, and how they conducted themselves and where their focus was during the course of a game. We encouraged him to think about that."
To Kesler's credit, he came back this season a more composed and focused player on the ice. It's called maturity.
"We've definitely seen that this year," Mike Kesler said. "It's helped his game. It's allowed him to really stay more focused and concentrate on the task at hand.
"One thing I've always told him: 'It's one thing to stand up for yourself, but the one thing you have to remember is that if you do more talking than anything else, you put a bull's-eye on your back and everybody wants a piece of you.'"
It was a new Ryan Kesler in 2010-11, with an "A" on his jersey to boot.
"For me, it was a change of mindset," he said. "In years past, I let little things get to me."
Playing for Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics this past February also changed Kesler.
"It was probably the most fun I've had playing hockey for those two weeks," Kesler said. "The guys were great, the hockey was great, and that last game, I don't think I'll ever play in a game as good as that for a long time. As a player, you learn a lot of from that. You learn how to stay in the moment, you learn how to play in those pressure situations. For me, I had a blast. I got a lot of confidence from the Olympics and really just built off that."
One of the more infamous moments from the Games involved Kesler's comments before a preliminary-round game against Canada.
In the heat of the Olympic pressure cooker, playing for Team USA in the town where he makes a living, Kesler had the moxie to say what was on his mind when asked about facing the favored hosts: "I hate them."
The Americans pulled off the preliminary upset, but Canada would have the last word against Kesler and the U.S. in the gold-medal game. Regardless of the final outcome, Kesler grew more confident in his abilities and belonging among the game's elite.
"When he feels confident in his game, when he feels the guys around him and the coaching staff really believe in him, he seems to have always taken his game to another level," Kesler's father said. "He's always been that way, but now as he's gotten older, he's realizing the best ways to achieve those goals. He's always been the type of player that has really never accepted what he did yesterday. It was never enough. He's always wanted to try to do better."
The Canucks have been built for this very moment. The core players on their team have seasoned. The third line has improved via the arrival of Manny Malhotra. The blue line has been strengthened by high-end free-agent pickup of Dan Hamhuis, but will have to rebound from the loss of Alex Edler (out indefinitely/back surgery). The Sedins are playing as well as ever. Roberto Luongo has been a rock in goal, as has young backup Cory Schneider.
"I do think the core group of this team, being together, growing together that ownership and that accountability within that room makes me real confident," Vigneault said.
"It's the best team I've played for in my career," Luongo told ESPN.com. "It's exciting to be part of. We've got lots of work to do before getting to where we want to be. We have to keep working toward that, but if we do, we could have some fun in a few months."
What makes this club better than last season?
"I think we're more structured as a team," Henrik Sedin said. "We have a better team overall, too. The pieces that have come in have made us better. We have guys that should have bigger roles on other teams, but here, they get a bit less of a role and do it to perfection."
Mention the Canucks on ESPN.com message boards, however, and you're bound to hear from Blackhawks fans. Deservedly cocky, they'll tell you Vancouver must beat Chicago in the playoffs in order to be taken more seriously.
"You'd like to get a crack at the team they had last year," Kesler said. "It's too bad they had to trade some of those guys away. They still got their core group of guys, and I'd like nothing more than to play them again in the playoffs and go through them. It would be a dream come true for me. They beat us twice and they have bragging rights, I guess. But this is a new year and a new team."
And the locals in Vancouver can't get enough of it. It's a crazy environment.
"It's fun coming to the rink every day. It's fun being part of this right now," Kesler said.
"The expectations here are probably as high as they've ever been in this team's history," Gillis said. "It can be challenging meeting those expectations daily."
Vigneault has been key in helping the team maintain its focus through this all the excitement. The Sedins have also preached a calm approach -- never too high, never too low.
"After wins, obviously we're happy, but we're not so happy that you forget the big goal," Kesler said. "Even during that 22-game streak [without a regulation-time loss], we were on, we still had guys breaking sticks in practice. We all want to be better, we all want perfection. And when we're losing, we're not getting too low. We know teams go through stretches like that. That's the biggest thing about this team -- we stay on an even keel and we don't let things bother us too much."
A Canadian-based team hasn't hoisted the Stanley Cup since June 1993, when Patrick Roy and the Habs rocked the Montreal Forum that memorable spring.
"I was home and I remember watching it," said Luongo, a Montreal native. "Those are good memories, even though I wasn't a Habs fan. I was an Oilers fan growing up. But it was great for the city and the fans in Montreal."
Luongo then paused before mentioning that since there are only six Canadian teams in a 30-team league, it only stands to reason it's tough on the Canadian clubs to win it.
"But that streak is going to end at some point, right?," Luongo added with a smirk.
Kesler, like all NHLers, has allowed himself the vision of what it would be like hoisting Lord Stanley's prize.
"It's the big silver, shiny thing that you want lift over your head," Kesler said. "I'd like nothing more than to be part of this team doing that."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Canada's best hope to end its Cup drought is the Vancouver Canucks, and an American, Ryan Kesler, may be its biggest asset in getting there.