The Vancouver Canucks are at the top of the Western Conference standings with as strong a club as they've ever had. They boast the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Henrik Sedin who, along with his brother, led the team in scoring again this season.
While the Sedin twins are a marvel to watch on the ice, providing highlight goal after highlight goal, neither one of them are the most important player on the Canucks roster. That title belongs to Ryan Kesler.
Last season, the Canucks entered the playoffs with the No. 3 seed, high expectations and the whole hockey-crazed province of British Columbia behind them. At the end of their series with the Blackhawks, Kesler was seen wincing in pain on the bench.
He may have been in pain because of the shoulder injury he suffered in the first round, but he just as well might have been wincing over his poor playoff performance and the team's elimination.
As this season hits the halfway point, Ryan Kesler seems to have learned from that experience and has become the steady straw that stirs the Canuck drink while also becoming one of the league's elite players.
Kesler came up with Vancouver as a gritty, defensive-minded forward who killed penalties and was a major league pest on the ice. The Canucks re-signed him in 2006 after Philadelphia tried to snare him away with a $1.9 million offer sheet.
That amount was shocking for a one-way player, but the Canucks quickly matched the offer, seeing the potential Kesler had and keeping him in Canuck blue.
Kesler has lived up to that contract and was rewarded last year with an extension through 2016. In return Kesler has been paying off on the ice.
He gives the Canucks two legitimate scoring lines, and opposing teams now have to pick their poison in deciding which line to match up their top defensemen with.
He has blossomed into one of the best two-way players going in the league. On offense, he has shown that he can distribute the puck, as well as fire deadly wristers on net.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has paired Kesler with the Sedins on the top power play, and the goals are piling up.
Kesler's line-mates have been benefiting as well. He is making the players around him better as witnessed by the recent goal outburst of Jeff Tambellini.
As great as the increased offense is (he's on pace for close to 50 goals), it's the other things Kesler does that make him the most valuable Canuck. He is the team's best penalty killer, is plus-17 on the season, goes to the dirty places on the ice, is eighth in the league in face-offs and has shown an increased maturity.
In years past, Kesler seemed just as interested in being a pest as he did helping the team, perhaps believing he was helping the team.
After the Canucks mental meltdown against Chicago in the playoffs, the team sat him down and asked him to tone it down, concentrate more on the game.
He has mentioned that after that talk and being home with his children he re-evaluated his on ice behavior. Whatever the motivation, the Canucks are reaping the benefits.
Watching Kesler now, you see less chirping after the whistle and fewer stick-breaking tantrums after bad plays. His reputation as a pest still lingers, and night after night, you will see the opposition trying to bait Kesler into a penalty after the whistle. So far this year he isn't biting, choosing to respond by potting more goals instead.
If Kesler can maintain that discipline and continue to lead with his hard work, the Canucks may be able to break through the second round and bring the cup to Vancouver.
And all the while the Sedins will continue to be the face of the organization, and Kesler will be the heart and soul.