With another 3-point night to extend his point-scoring streak to 8 games, Ryan Kesler has suddenly become the subject of speculation: is he the best player in the Western Conference? Twitter was abuzz with the question last night, it was one of the main topics of conversation on the Team 1040 morning show on my drive in to work, and Gordon McIntyre even asks if he's the best player in hockey. The sentiment is nice, but off-base. The argument could be made that he is the hottest player in the Western Conference (in terms of his play on the ice, not his physique), but one hot streak does not make him the best.
Don't get me wrong, I like Ryan Kesler and would argue that he is just as important to the team's success as Luongo and the Sedins, but in a conference with Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, and the aforementioned Sedins, it's a little early to anoint him with oil and declare him king. It's especially frustrating to see the Sedins continue to get short shrift despite making their nest among the top five in Western Conference scoring. Of note: 14 of Kesler's 34 points were on the powerplay, where he plays with the Sedins. This is not a coincidence.
He has, however, entered into the conversation, which is impressive in and of itself. And there is one statistic that leads to the question posed in the title of this post: can Ryan Kesler get even better?
The Inside the Numbers section of the upcoming January 17th edition of The Hockey News looks into the best and worst players in the latter half of the season. The main metric used is points-per-game, specifically the greatest increases and decreases in points-per-game between the first and the last halves of the season. Since the lockout, the player with the greatest increase in points-per-game during the second half of the season is Ryan Kesler. From The Hockey News:
The 26-year-old has had a better points-per-game production in the second half of every season since the lockout (except in 2007-08, where he dropped by a measly 0.05 points/game played). Over the past five seasons, Kesler managed 89 points in 203 games in the first half while earning 121 points in 171 games in the second half, an increase of .27 points per game. Among current players, no one can touch Kesler's mark.
It's a touch strong to say no one can touch Kesler, when Sam Gagner's increase of 0.265 is just 0.004 behind Kesler's mark of 0.269, but those are still impressive numbers that show just how much Kesler is able to elevate his game. We are almost at the halfway mark of the season and Kesler has 34 points in 35 games, for a point-per-game average of 0.97, putting him on pace for 80 points this season, which would best last season's career high 75.
While no guarantee, his historical trend of increasing his point production in the stretch drive is a good sign. For the sake of argument, let's say that he continues his 0.97 points-per-game pace through game 41 on the schedule and increases his production by the 0.269 mark mentioned in The Hockey News, pushing him up to 1.24 points-per-game through the final 41 games of the season. That would give him 51 points on top of the 40 he would have tallied through the first half, giving him a total of 91 points on the season, which is not an unreasonable mark.
91 points would match Brad Richards output from last season, where he finished second to Henrik Sedin in points in the Western Conference. 91 points would put him among the elite scorers in the NHL. 91 points would be a good argument, along with his continued stellar defensive play, for naming him the best forward in the Western Conference. He's not there yet, but he has the potential, which is extremely exciting.
As an aside, two other Canucks made the top-30 in point-per-game increase: Alexandre Burrows and Manny Malhotra, who have managed +0.145 and +-.142 increases post-lockout respectively. Unfortunately, a Canuck factors into the top-20 decreases in point-per-game production, Mason Raymond, with a -0.163 drop. At least he doesn't come close to the "leader" in that category, Ilya Kovalchuk, who has had a -0.271 decrease in points-per-game average over the second half of the season since the lockout. Yikes.