Is that really Ryan Kesler? It sure looks like him, with that steely stare and perpetual scruff. And whoever is wearing that number 17 Canucks sweater sure plays like Kesler—with the same physicality and explosive speed. But the Ryan Kesler known throughout the NHL as one of the more annoying agitators in hockey would never skate away from a confrontation, especially one with a trash-talking rookie. Last season, if a 23-year-old kid like the Oilers' Theo Peckham had warned Kesler that, in so many words, he should prepare for the longest night of his life (as the hulking defenseman did in Vancouver three weeks ago), the Canucks' second-line center would have shot back with something like, "Who are you again? Am I supposed to know you?" But this mystery man isn't even barking back.
Indeed, as Peckham skates just a stride behind Kesler, jawing away in hopes of provoking a reaction, the target of his taunting simply rolls his eyes and shakes his head. But he does not engage. Not anymore.
Meet the new Ryan Kesler. These days, when he wants to send a message he lets his play do the talking. During what became a 6--1 drubbing of the Oilers on Jan. 7, Kesler spoke rarely and carried a big stick. Early in the second period he swooped into the zone and loosed a blistering wrist shot from just inside the blue line. Edmonton goalie Nikolai Khabibulin got a piece of the puck with his glove, but not enough; it popped into the air and over his head, then dribbled into the net. Kesler then scored on a pair of deflections in the third, the last one while screening Khabibulin on Vancouver's formidable power play, which through Sunday is humming along at 23.3%, third best in the NHL. Even when his second hat trick in 12 games was in the books, Kesler resisted the urge to point out to Peckham that his night hadn't been so bad.
Trading in a smart mouth for smarter play has been nothing but a boon to the production of the Livonia, Mich., native—and not just because his penalty minutes are down from 1:16 a game last season to :50. With 26 goals through Sunday, Kesler has equaled his career high and is on pace for his first 80-point season. Skating on the top power-play unit, on the penalty kill and, usually, in shootouts, he leads all Canucks forwards in ice time (20:38). He is winning 56.5% of his face-offs, and even though, as the Canucks' second-line center, he's often matched against opponents' top lines, he's +16. With five game-winners, he is the midseason favorite to earn his first Selke Trophy, annually awarded to the league's best two-way forward.
"The bottom line is that he does everything [you can do] to make players around him better," says USA Hockey's assistant executive director of operations Jim Johannson, for whom Kesler played at the Olympics last February.
This season that's no exaggeration: As Kesler goes, so go the Canucks. Through Sunday, Vancouver (29-10-9, tops in the West), which has lost only three games in regulation since Dec. 5, is 24-1-5 when Kesler gets a point. And the secret to his success—as well as his club's—seems wholly attributable to his new attitude.
The call to action—or in Kesler's case, inaction—came last spring when general manager Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault conducted year-end meetings with each of their players. They believed Kesler, along with a handful of his teammates, needed a dose of behavioral rehabilitation. The constant chirping, the extracurricular hits, the retaliatory penalties all "camouflaged immaturity," according to Gillis. Kesler and his mates, in other words, were wasting energy on insignificant parts of the game, more interested in ego battles than in victory.
Gillis and Vigneault explained to Kesler what they saw, then told him what they wanted to see. The fiercely competitive forward has always played with tenacity, but in moments of frustration his emotions often got the best of him. If he missed a shot on a breakaway, for instance, it wouldn't be surprising to see him shatter his stick on the way to the bench. On nights when things went poorly, Kesler would brood over the game, replaying it over and over again in his head. In the eyes of his G.M. and coach, he had a hard time letting things go. And that needed to change.
"If I see you break a stick on the boards again," Gillis warned him, "you won't be playing the next night."
It was the first time anybody—besides an opponent—had really confronted him about his lack of self-control. "When your boss says something to you, you're going to listen," says Kesler, 26. Chastened, he went to Michigan to talk to his father, Mike, the man who taught him how to play the game. At the time, Ryan and his wife, Andrea, had one child, two-year-old daughter Mikayla, and were expecting a second. (Their son, Ryker, was born last month.)