The Anaheim Ducks may very well have found their missing link.
The franchise that hasn’t seen a Conference Final since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 looks poised for a deep playoff run, thanks in large part to first-year Duck, Ryan Kesler. And despite reaching the Conference semifinal last season, the presence of their new second-line center make the Ducks an even more intimidating matchup this go-round.
When GM Bob Murray acquired Kesler last offseason, the reigning NHL GM of the Year knew exactly what kind of fit the 11-year veteran would be. Known for both his offensive production, and agitating roughness, Kesler has bolstered the reputation of a Ducks team whose reputation is predicated on “mean and nasty” as much as their offensive prowess.
“We like to be the bad guy or the villain or whatever you guys want to call it and use that to our advantage,” said teammate Corey Perry via the L.A. Times’ Helene Elliott. “It’s been like that for the both of us for our whole careers. It’s been fun.”
Although Kesler has had no issue in fitting in, finishing second among teammates with 169 hits on the regular season, the 30-year-old forward didn’t disappoint offensively either. In 81 games, the former Canuck experienced his best offensive output (47 points) since notching 49 points in the 2011-12 season.
“It’s turned out better than I expected,” Kesler told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun back in March. “I had high expectations coming here, the organization is top notch, teammates have been overly friendly and overly nice. We clicked right off the bat. And the family loves it here too, and that’s the icing on the cake.”
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) April 23, 2015
After being ousted in last year’s semifinal round against Los Angeles in seven games, the Ducks hit the jackpot, as Kesler’s divorce with Vancouver was growing to fruition. To land the decorated star, Murray parted ways with Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, as well as a first and third-round draft pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
With Kesler, Anaheim hit the triple digit point plateau for the second straight year, while capturing their third consecutive Pacific Division crown. The regular season hasn’t been the problem, however, for Bruce Boudreau’s squad – it’s been their playoff disappointment and frustration, dropping consecutive Game 7’s in the previous two post-season appearances. As Nicholas Goss wrote for NESN:
“One of the reasons for Anaheim’s playoff exit was a lack of depth and elite two-way skill at center. Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf is one of the best centers in the NHL and a Hart Trophy candidate, but after him, the team’s depth down the middle wasn’t good enough against a Kings team loaded at center with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Jarret Stoll. Most championship teams have two legitimate top-six centers, which Anaheim lacked in 2013-14.”
If Anaheim’s quarterfinal series sweep against Winnipeg is any indication of how much of a difference Kesler makes on this year’s group, it’s bad news for whoever crosses their path.
Not only did the Ducks sweep the Jets in Winnipeg’s first playoff experience since 1996, they did so in convincing/comeback fashion. Curtis Zupke broke it down like this for NHL.com:
“The Ducks outscored the Jets 10-1 in the third period and overtime in the series, including 5-0 in Games 1-2. It wasn’t their game plan, but it fell in line with how the season has gone for the Ducks, who won an NHL single-season record 18 games in the regular season when trailing at any point in the third period and were 12-23-0 when trailing after two periods.
Anaheim was the first team in NHL history to win three straight playoff games at any point in the postseason when trailing at any point in the third period.”
While Corey Perry was… well, Corey Perry – leading all NHL playoff skaters with seven points through Apr. 22’s action – Kesler certainly made his presence known as well, capping off a five point series with a pair of goals in Wednesday night’s clincher. The Livonia, Michigan native extended Anaheim’s lead to two goals in the third period twice, earning him an array of monikers synonymous with a storyline heel on social media.
“We win. We don’t care how. We just win,” Kesler told Arpon Basu of NHL.com. “We’ve been doing it all year. We win in different ways. The majority of times we are down in games, but for whatever reason that’s when this team plays its best, when we’re down and we’re pushing. That’s one thing this team can do, is score goals at timely opportunities. We’ve been doing that in this series.”
While Kesler’s presence could be the added piece to catapult the Ducks over the top, this is technically nothing new for Anaheim.
Should the Ducks celebrate their second Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history, the trade that brought Kesler to Anaheim could be the second in a series of significant game-changing deals.
After falling to the Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Western Conference Finals, then GM Brian Burke set out to find the final piece of the puzzle. On July 3, 2006, Burke found that piece, acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger for Joffrey Lupul and Ladislav Smid, along with a trio of draft picks.
The result of that trade would not only bring the Ducks their highest point total in team history to that point (110), but their first Stanley Cup Championship as well.
In Anaheim, Pronger was the last piece of the puzzle for the Ducks to be added by GM Brian Burke who had originally drafted Pronger when he was GM of the Whalers. During the 2006-07 season Pronger would have his best year since his MVP season when he would get 59 points (13 G, 46 A) in 66 games. In the 2007 playoffs, the Ducks would dispatch the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round in 5 games, cast away the Vancouver Canucks in the 2nd round in 5 games, surpassed the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games, while pushing aside the Ottawa Senators in the Finals in 5 games to win the Stanley Cup. — Adam Kirshenblatt, Hockey Buzz
Ryan Kesler is going to be as big of a pickup as Pronger was for the 07 Ducks.. Huge piece of the puzzle #NHLDucks
— Jimmy (@Jrgom81) April 23, 2015
While the trade between Anaheim and Ottawa that would bring Jakob Silfverberg to town in July of 2013 is paying off as well today (six playoff points through four games), the Kesler deal will stand to be the one most akin to that of Pronger’s nearly a decade ago. As Ian MacIntyre from The Vancouver Sun wrote:
“Kesler is undoubtedly one of the best players in Canuck history, a Selke Trophy winner who should be on the Wall of Fame inside Rogers Arena. But he also demanded out for personal reasons, although Kesler didn’t exactly go Pavel Bure on the Canucks and bolt on a valid contract and refuse to play.
No one on the Ducks is complaining.”
Both Kesler and Pronger were established stars before being acquired. Both brought with them the experience of playing in the Stanley Cup Final, while both left their previous teams under less than ideal conditions.
Pronger would ultimately end up in Philadelphia in a trade that brought Luca Sbisa (among other pieces), the same Sbisa that was packaged in the trade that won Anaheim the Ryan Kesler sweepstakes.
Sbisa — who went ahead of Del Zotto and Carlson in his draft year (No. 19, '08) — has now been traded for Chris Pronger and Ryan Kesler.
— Mike Halford (@HalfordPHT) June 27, 2014
The comparison between Kesler and Pronger ends there, for now anyway. Their difference in positions makes likening the two any further nearly impossible. But should the Ducks flourish later in June, Kesler and Pronger will have even more in common.
For now, Kesler and his teammates will wait idly to see if they’ll draw Vancouver or Calgary in the second round. Regardless of who it is, the Ducks have to like their chances. Especially with their newly acquired game changer.