Ryan Kesler is no stranger to pressure. A veteran of Stanley Cup Final games and Olympic competition, the 33-year old center for the Anaheim Ducks has seen his fair share of pressure-packed hockey over his decade-long career. The latest playoff run he is set to embark on will be no different.
Anaheim — a team besieged by injury for half the season — has both gotten healthy and has rounded into form in the latter stages of the regular season. It earned them home ice in a matchup against a once seemingly invincible San Jose Sharks squad. After rattling off an impressive eight-game winning streak, San Jose lost a ghastly five out of six games to close out their 2017-18 campaign.
That won’t make Kesler’s job any easier. Since day one of his arrival to Anaheim, he’s been tasked with being the classic shutdown center, routinely facing the other team’s best. Last spring, he faced Connor McDavid in a seven-game classic. This time around, he will most likely receive a regular dose of the Sharks’ top line, consisting of Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski, and Joonas Donskoi.
Kane, the Sharks’ prized trade deadline acquisition, has revitalized that first line in Joe Thornton’s absence. The numbers for that trio are startling. Together at five-on-five, they’ve controlled 58.45 percent of the shot attempts, 66.67 percent of the scoring chances, and 75 percent of the high-danger chances.
Joe Pavelski may not be in his prime anymore, and Kane could very well be playing hurt, but that line is still a problem for Anaheim. Negating its effectiveness will be key, and naturally, the honor of attempting to do so will be bestowed upon Kesler and his linemates Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano.
Kesler and company looked sharp to close out the season. They returned to controlling the shot attempt battle, and there was a general energy to their game that just hadn’t been there when Kesler returned from his hip surgery. By all indications, the former Olympian still isn’t fully healthy. He hasn’t practiced full time, and by general manager Bob Murray’s own admission, he probably won’t be back to 100 percent until training camp. Due to that simple reality, it’s perfectly justifiable to question his ability to log those heavy matchup minutes.
What it's like to be a GM on a team stuck in-between at the trade deadline: You don't have to read between the lines to pick up on Ducks GM Bob Murray's frustration.https://t.co/Wkk2V5rKC2— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) February 14, 2018
The term “shutdown” is almost unfair in some ways. In hockey, talent can only be held down for so long, so the term “containment” is probably more accurate (although far less sexy, of course). The Sharks’ top line will inevitably have some great shifts and score some goals, but limiting the frequency of those events is the real end game here, not eliminating them altogether. That’s where expectations should be set.
Even with properly contextualized expectations, there’s still a lot on the line for Kesler in this series. He’ll be 34 this summer, and there’s really no way of knowing how his surgically repaired hip serves him in the twilight of his career. Yet as the Ducks’ third-highest paid player with a full no-move clause that most players can only dream of, the expectations for Kesler won’t change, especially as his game potentially declines and his sizable cap hit remains the same for the next four years.
The pressure isn’t on Kesler alone. Silfverberg, who dropped off a bit offensively in 17-18, has only a year left on his current deal. At least one of Anaheim’s forward prospects could make the jump to the NHL next year, while the looming extensions for John Gibson and Brandon Montour leave one to wonder where Silfverbreg fits in the organization’s long term vision. It’s early, but it’s not inconceivable that the 27-year old Swede becomes a trade chip in the next 12 months.
Silfverberg still has a bunch of time to chase a Cup in a top-six role, however, and his pay-grade will never manufacture expectations like Kesler’s does. For Anaheim’s alternate captain, this is one of his last few real shots at a Stanley Cup, at least in a leading role. His current role is still just as crucial to the Ducks’ as it was three years ago, and his ability to fulfill it will have a serious hand in Anaheim’s chances at advancing. Outside of that top line, the Sharks really don’t possess any clear matchup advantages. Seems like a perfect scenario for someone who loves pressure.