When Ducks fly: Ryan Kesler's arrival opens up a world of possibilities in Anaheim

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When Ducks fly: Ryan Kesler's arrival opens up a world of possibilities in Anaheim
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Ryan Kesler wakes up every morning with a view of the Pacific. He goes to the rink every day wearing flip-flops. He skates every shift feeling better physically in training camp than he has since …

Well …

“Since I can remember,” he says.

Since that 41-goal, Selke-Trophy-winning, seventh-game-of-the-Stanley-Cup-Final season in 2010-11?

“Even before that,” he says.

Ryan Kesler is in a good place, and so now are the Anaheim Ducks, who finally have the kind of second-line center who can support Ryan Getzlaf and match up in the Darwinian Western Conference.

“Hopefully,” Kesler says, “we can be a one-two punch that’s dominant.”

When Kesler wanted a fresh start after 10 seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, he asked out and used his no-trade clause to narrow the options to two: Anaheim and Chicago. Both teams had openings at 2C. Both gave him a chance to win at age 30.

Anaheim had an added bonus: Kesler grew up in suburban Detroit and married a Michigan girl. He wears a Tigers cap to Ducks practice. But his wife, Andrea, moved to Michigan when she was 16. She’s originally from San Diego.

Ducks general manager Bob Murray tried to acquire Kesler before the trade deadline last season. He couldn’t close a deal with Mike Gillis, who was trying to hold onto the Canucks GM job and holding out for a high price.

After 10 years in Vancouver, Ryan Kesler is feeling good in Anaheim. (Getty)
After 10 years in Vancouver, Ryan Kesler is feeling good in Anaheim. (Getty)

The Ducks finished with 116 points, second-most in the NHL. They advanced to the second round of the playoffs and took the Los Angeles Kings – the eventual Stanley Cup champions – to seven games. But some of their weaknesses were exposed: center depth, faceoffs.

Murray says this goes back to the aftermath of the Ducks’ Cup victory in 2007. With Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne contemplating retirement, the Ducks signed Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi. When Niedermayer and Selanne decided to come back, the Ducks found themselves in salary-cap trouble. They had to move players.

The biggest regrets: The Ducks traded center Andy McDonald during the 2007-08 season. They traded winger Chris Kunitz during the 2008-09 season.

“We got ourselves into a world of hurt years ago,” says Murray, who rose to GM in November 2008 when Brian Burke took over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We screwed up, big time. … I think if you ask Brian Burke, he would tell you the same thing. We tried so hard to win the Cup again that we should have taken a step back and looked at what we were doing.”

Upset by the loss to the Kings, Murray wanted change over the summer. Out went Selanne, Nick Bonino, Jonas Hiller, Saku Koivu, Mathieu Perreault, Stephane Robidas, Luca Sbisa and Daniel Winnik. In came Kesler, Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner and Nate Thompson.

He isn’t done. He has plenty of cap space and will be watching closely over the first 20 or 25 games, plotting his next move(s). Is there enough scoring? Is the defense stout enough? How are young goalies Frederik Andersen and John Gibson coming along?

The Ducks have young, promising defensemen: Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen. But none has the skill of Niedermayer or the snarl of Chris Pronger, the stars who anchored the Ducks’ blueline when they won the Cup. Murray is keenly aware of that.

“That’s always in the back of my mind,” Murray says. “Where is that guy on the back end that’s going to be that type of guy? They don’t fall off the tree very easily. We’re trying to grow them here right now, and if you can’t grow them …”

You’ve got to shake the tree, like Murray did to land his second-line center.

No. 1 center Ryan Getzlaf should have more offensive freedom with Kesler in the No. 2 spot. (USA Today)
No. 1 center Ryan Getzlaf should have more offensive freedom with Kesler in the No. 2 spot. (USA Today)

Murray made another run at Kesler with Jim Benning, who replaced Gillis as the Canucks GM. He didn’t want to give up Bonino, a 26-year-old who scored 22 goals last season. But he had to, along with Sbisa and the 24th pick in the draft, and he was able to hold onto the 10th pick.

Kesler is the key part of the Ducks’ plan. The Ducks don’t care where they finish in the regular season, as long as they make the playoffs and prepare themselves along the way. They are creating a leadership group, so Getzlaf and Corey Perry aren’t carrying the whole load. They want to distribute ice time more evenly, so the top players are fresh for the spring and the Ducks can roll four lines against deep division rivals like L.A. and the San Jose Sharks.

The Ducks now have a premier pain-in-the-butt on each of their top two lines – Perry on the first, Kesler on the second. They now have someone else to go against the likes of Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton. When there’s a draw in the defensive zone, coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t need to send out Getzlaf as often, freeing Getzlaf for more offensive situations.

“It gives us better options,” Boudreau says. “As far as matchups go, when a team was really matching up on Getzlaf’s line, we didn’t have that other big center that you needed to maybe match up against maybe their No. 1 line.”

“I’ve started a lot, a lot of faceoffs in the defensive zone,” Getzlaf says. “Having another guy here who is responsible in our zone and can play those minutes is going to help me in some aspects of the offensive side – and just overall.”

Kesler feels rejuvenated. Though he won a lot in Vancouver – and got along fine with coach John Tortorella last season – he didn’t like it when the Canucks fell out of contention, didn’t love the media scrutiny and wasn’t willing to wait while Benning retooled the team. Though he has missed only 38 of 540 games over the past seven seasons, he has been hampered by nagging injuries. He has had wrist surgery, shoulder surgery, hip surgery.

He was healthy this summer for the first time in years, and he worked with a couple of new trainers in the Detroit area. When he arrived in Southern California, he soaked up the sunshine with his family and started getting to know his teammates – a new guy for the first time in a decade. When he came to camp, he put up the best fitness scores of his life.

“I’m not old, but I’m getting up there,” Kesler says. “It’s a chance. I know how close these guys were last year, and with the changes they made, hopefully we’re that much closer.

“We’re a long way from April, May. It’s going to be a long year. It’s going to be a learning curve for me, a learning curve for some of my teammates, too. But come April, we’re going to be ready.”

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