Ryan Kesler is having a monster season for the Anaheim Ducks -- at both ends of the rink.
Being tied for the team lead with 28 points (12-16) only starts to tell the story. His shutdown game against top offensive stars has also really sparkled.
Tyler Seguin (two games), Joe Pavelski (three games), Connor McDavid (two games), John Tavares (two games) and Anze Kopitar (one game) are a few of the top-end players whom Kesler has shut down -- as in zero even-strength goals scored against the Ducks while he was on the ice.
Faceoffs, penalty killing, power play -- the 32-year-old Livonia, Michigan, native is doing it all. He won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward in 2011 while still with the Vancouver Canucks, and was nominated last season. He's making a strong case again in 2016-17.
I sat down with Kesler on Sunday afternoon and asked him to break down the top (mostly Western Conference) forwards he's routinely assigned to contain, and the challenges those star players bring:
Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles Kings
Kesler: "A guy who's good on both sides of the puck. He works hard, he has good vision and I feel that if he starts with the puck, he really likes to build speed through the neutral zone. He likes to get the puck in the middle of the ice and distribute from there. So, really just trying to stay above him in the neutral zone is what's key. And winning faceoffs."
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
Kesler: "He likes his neutral-zone play, he likes carrying the puck and getting there with speed. You've just got to stay close to him. He's so dynamic, he's so explosive -- you got to be above him all the time. He's going to get his chances, but that's when the whole line comes into effect. Just got to try and stay above him and be hard on him, make him hate playing against you. Stay close to him and really make that neutral zone tough because that's where he generates most of his offense, and on the rush."
Patrick Kane, RW, Chicago Blackhawks
Kesler: "When Kane had his breakout year, it was always [difficult] playing against him. He's more dangerous offensively. I feel like he's the life force of that team that really gets his whole team playing like he does. That line normally is him and [Artemi] Panarin. They like to swing really low, almost to the top of the circle and pick up the puck -- their D do a good job of pulling it back and stretching the zone. For us, we don't want to be sitting ducks in the neutral zone, we want to be up and have speed and skate with them. Kane is dynamic; he's going to get his chances, just like McDavid. But for me, it's just swinging with him and not letting him get the puck [on the breakout], letting his center, [Artem] Anisimov, carrying it up the ice rather than Kane. I'd much rather have Anisimov carrying it through the neutral zone than Kane."
Sidney Crosby, C, Pittsburgh Penguins
Kesler: "Everybody knows what he's about. He's the best player in the game, probably. What can you say? He's going to get his chances, he's explosive. He can dish, he can shoot, he's good around the net, he's strong. ... He doesn't say much on the ice. He's a guy that really just goes about his business and puts up points. We didn't have much success against him this year [a 5-1 loss]. You just try to play him hard and know where other people on the ice are with him. Because if you just focus on him, he's going to give somebody else a tap-in."
John Tavares, C, New York Islanders
Kesler: "Probably the best one-on-one player in the NHL. He's a guy that you have to be aware of because you think he has nothing, and then he turns it into something. He's a guy that competes extremely hard. He battles on the draw. He makes things happen."
Kesler: "It's tough. Especially [on] faceoffs, when both can take them on their strong side, right or left. That line has so many faceoff plays, and usually with [defenseman Brent] Burns out there, too. It's a whole line you have to be aware of. They like their plays, like behind the net -- Thornton likes distributing from there. And Pavelski is a guy you've got to tie his stick up, he gets his stick on everything. For me, it's just being hard on those guys. Jumbo [Thornton] likes to use his body and, [given] his reach ... you've got to try and get close, get stick on puck and take away his options. ... Thornton and I have had our battles over the years, but I think it's a respect thing. We have our talks out there, he seems like a good guy, but he's the enemy." [smiles]
Kesler: "They're good guys, probably the nicest guys in the league, to be honest. With them, you've got to play them hard. It's tough, obviously they're [my] friends, but you can't let them off the hook. You have to finish your checks on them, you have to deter them physically. You've always got to know where both of them are. They have their little plays. I think since I played with them for so long, it might be a bit easier for me because I know their reads and I know their tendencies."
Kesler: "We had a tough time with them last time [a 6-2 loss]. They're a line that takes chances. ... We know if we turn the puck over, all three guys on that line are gone. You don't want to push too much and turn pucks over. With that line, we try to counter a lot and make them play in their own zone."
Bonus question: Is Benn a guy where you don't want to poke the bear?
Kesler: "He's the life of that team. They tend to feed off him when he gets into fights and when he's physical. So, if he's sleeping, we're going to let him sleep."
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis Blues
Kesler: "I think I fought him last year. I feel like I can deter him. For him, he's a skilled player, he can shoot the hell out of the puck, he's going to get his chances. For me, it's limiting time and space. I know he likes his snap shot; he pulls it in and releases it really good. So, the less he has the puck, the better for us."
Matt Duchene, C, Colorado Avalanche
Kesler: "Speed, obviously, with him -- he's got a good release and a good shot. You try to deter him physically and just be hard on him. If I don't have a read on a guy, I just try to outwork him."
Mark Scheifele, C, Winnipeg Jets
Kesler: "He's come on, really good player. He's having a great year. He has that shot on the power play from the middle of the ice. The big thing is making him work off the draw. If you win the draw, you're most likely going to win the battle that shift."