It was the move that was rumored to happen in the months leading up to the trade deadline, then again at the draft tables, and then again in the days leading up to the opening of free agency. Finally, on June 27th, 2014, it happened. Ryan Kesler agreed to waive his no-trade clause and was headed to Anaheim in exchange for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, and first and third round draft picks.
Once again, Bob Murray had got his man, and done so at a price that was far lower than what was offered at the previous trade deadline day. The move gave the Ducks perhaps their deepest collection of players at the center position in franchise history, and put the team on the map as a contender for the Stanley Cup.
Season In Review
Ryan Kesler's first season in Anaheim did not disappoint.
Perhaps the biggest worry coming into the year was the health of the prized second-line center that had not played a full season since 2010-11. His gritty, ultra-aggressive style of play puts him at a far greater risk of injury than other players, so his physical condition is always a concern.
However, Kesler's first season finished without a single hiccup, as Kesler played all but one game this year. In fact he only missed that one game (a nearly-pointless 5-1 trouncing of the Edmonton Oilers on April 1st) and that was purely because coach Bruce Boudreau wanted to give him some rest heading into the playoffs.
With the excitement buzzing about his arrival and potential impact to the team, Ducks fans didn't have to wait long for Kesler to score. He scored the first goal of the Ducks season (on the power play, no less) in yet another embarrassing season-opening loss.
That was goal number one of 20 he would finish out the year with.
Something interesting would also develop over the course of the year.
Kesler played like a man possessed in big games for the Ducks, particularly against the big rivals of San Jose and Los Angeles. Kesler scored two critical goals and then again in the shootout in Anaheim's wild 6-5 win over Los Angeles in their first meeting. He would score five total goals against the Kings this season, and total 10 points in the 10 games he played against both the Sharks and Kings.
It wasn't just these two he lit up either. Kesler had a few pretty nice highlights on the year. For example, you have his December 22 overtime winner in which he sniped the puck over the glove of Antti Niemi to give the Ducks their lone win of the season against the Sharks. Or how about this other OT winner beauty walking out in front of the Los Angeles net and sending a laser into the top corner? However I really don't think you can top his shorthanded tally against Arizona when he beat Mike Smith while falling down with two defensemen draped all over him.
In advanced numbers, Kesler finished with a 51.92 shot-attempt-for percentage (SAT%, or Corsi-for-percentage) at five-on-five hockey. So while his numbers say he was just slightly on the positive side in terms of possession, it's made even more remarkable when you consider his -14% relative offensive zone-start ratio. Kesler was almost always relied upon to take the difficult shifts at the most critical times against the top centers from the opposition, and not only did he shut them down (freeing up Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to do their thing in a much more favorable matchup), he often times dominated the battle, scoring goals and turning the opposition's minutes with their most dangerous players on the ice into offensive zone time for the Ducks. That kind of skill is absolutely invaluable for a team that wants to win on a consistent basis.
In the playoffs, Kesler was once again the big-matchup man. In the series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Kesler was assigned the task of shutting down the league's best two-way center in Jonathan Toews. For six games, he did an impeccable job of it. In game seven, Joel Quennville got his way and got Toews away from Kesler, negating Kesler's usefulness defensively. But nonetheless when the rest of the team appeared to be defeated and deflated, it was Kesler who notched one of the final goals of the season for the Ducks in a brilliant effort to inject at least some life back into the Honda Center crowd.
All in all, after one season with the Anaheim Ducks you can say he came exactly as described: a proven veteran player with a humongous amount of skill that pales in comparison to the size of his heart and work ethic. He almost immediately became a fan-favorite, and almost universally is loved across the supporter base for his calm demeanor, aforementioned unparalleled work ethic, and valiant leadership.
On one hand you have a guy who gives absolutely everything he has to every single shift he's given. Not a single night could you possibly say Kesler just didn't look like he was giving it his all. When the team needed a big play or a critical goal, so often throughout the season it was Kesler who came up with it. He played the power play, the penalty kill, huge minutes at five-on-five, and any time the team needed a critical shift. He dominated the season series against Anze Kopitar, one of the premiere power centers in the NHL. He held the league's best two-way center to about as small of an impact as he could manage through six excruciatingly difficult playoff games, and scored three goals in the seven game series in doing so. His talent level is absolutely astounding.
Likewise after the terrible game seven loss, while the rest of the team was spouting the same hollow words we've heard before about using it as a "learning experience" for next year, it was Kesler who came out and said "That won't happen again." And while I'm not so sure it won't due to hockey being a team game, I can say with absolute certainty that Ryan Kesler will be doing everything in his power to make sure it doesn't.
This is the type of player who only comes around once in a generation. While he may not be the biggest scorer or the best possession-driver or the frontrunner for the Selkie Trophy every season, Kesler has made an impact on this team in just one season that is so big and so resounding, he was rewarded with a humongous six-year extension. While the terms of this contract may prove to be an albatross in later years, you can hardly argue that Kesler didn't earn it. He's the type of player who when his contract comes due, you give him a blank check, a shiny hat, a house in Newport Beach, and a pony for his daughter if you have to. And Murray had to and he did. And I think for quite a long time further, Ducks fans are going to be thrilled that he did. What that means is for quite a long time, Ducks fans are going to get the sheer joy and pleasure of watching one of the league's elite two-way talents.