A lot of finger-pointing takes place after a game like last night's, so it was only a matter of time before somebody brought up Ryan Kesler's early struggles. I've heard criticism from a few sources this morning, and it's not entirely undeserved. Kesler has 1 point in his first 6 games, and hasn't looked to be nearly the dominant second-line center we saw last season. He's not creating as many chances as we're used to; he's missing shots; he's not as noticeable. At this point, it's hard to believe this guy has 134 points in his last two seasons. What's his problem?
Well, it might have something to do with the fact that Kesler has been removed from every situation in which he thrives.
The majority of Kesler's success came either on the 2nd line with Mason Raymond (and usually with Mikael Samuelsson), or on the 2nd powerplay unit. This season, he's spent little time with Raymond, and no time whatsoever on that 2nd PP formation. He's freshly shaven Samson.
Last night, the 2nd line consisted of Ryan Kesler between Peter Schaefer and Jannik Hansen, a duo that has combined for zero points this season and will likely improve that number very slowly over the next six months. To wit: they're not 2nd line players. It's hard to even call that unit a second line when two-thirds of it are unmistakably bottom-six guys.
Why is Kesler with them? Despite 50 assists last year saying otherwise, he's never been a particularly effective playmaker, so he's certainly not the right guy to carry the line's offensive load. In fact, most of Kesler's offensive success comes when he's paired with other skilled players. He saw success two years ago with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra. He developed an offensive identity last season with burgeoning scorer Mason Raymond (and they worked best when the third guy with them was a playmaker). Kesler's an opportunist, not a generator, and there will be far fewer opportunities than he's used to when he shares the ice with Jannik Hansen and Peter Schaefer.
On the powerplay, Kesler anchored the second unit, camping out near the half-wall, and sniping shots from out above the circle. He scored 12 power play goals last season, a lot of them the same way. He was an effective, consistent threat defensive formations had to respect, and it opened up space for everyone else on the unit. Kesler was the lynchpin of a power play formation, but now he's a fifth option, with Daniel, Henrik, and two point shots all looking for the puck. Even if that first unit has success, it won't be because of Kesler. His goal the other night is evidence he remains an excellent powerplay option. We could use one of those on the second unit. Why waste him on the first?
Secondary scoring was not an issue last season, but with Kesler's struggles, it's become one this year. It's not entirely his fault: Kes has been completely neutered thus far. If you want him to be an offensive option, you need to let him play his game. What does Alain Vigneault expect him to do when all the elements that make him successful are taken away?