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Kessel is the new Mr. October, but we’ll need him to be Mr. April and May, as well…

A few post-game observations before my full post, as the Leafs come from behind to win another, this time against the Jets:


-Readers will know I've written in the past about the (now former) Thrashers because of their impressive group of young players. Burmistrov, Byfuglien, Bogosian, Little, Kane, Enstrom, Ladd- these guys can play.


-Quick aside, does Byfuglien remind any older Leaf fans of a young Al Iafrate?


-That Wellwood and Antropov ended up on the scoresheet for the Jets will make some Leaf fans feel good, others not so much.


-As for the Leafs, well, Reimer did it again.  A huge save when it was 3-1 Winnipeg was a game-changer. (He has a knack for not letting the other team get that "next one".) Then, a fortunate re-direct on the power-play gave the Leafs some jump and Steckel (surprise) wins a face-off and Liles and Phaneuf set up Kessel for yet another to send the game into overtime.


-Great observation by Ray Ferraro during the shoot-out, that Frattin was checking out the video when Lupul netted one high over Pavelec's left shoulder.  Frattin went same side, off the post and in.  The young man is obviously a quick learner.


-Lupul, for his part, looked so relaxed when he skated in on the shoot-out opportunity that you knew he'd been there before.


-Last year at this time (in fact, dating back to the end of his first season in Toronto) I opined that Kessel would break out against the Bruins, his former team.  Didn't quite happen last season, either, but could this be the year? We may start finding out Thursday night.


-And maybe just to prove what can change in 24 hours:  Jake Gardiner went from 7th (press box) to 4th on the Leaf blue line depth chart by the end of the night...Despite my protestations, he may be staying, now, eh?


**

As I posted a few days ago, it’s hard not to fall in love with Phil Kessel when he is a dominant offensive player (and better all-around, but let’s see if that continues…) the way he has been during the five game home-stand to start the NHL season in Toronto.

He has become our “Mr. October”, if you will.

Now, you don’t have to be a huge baseball fan to understand the initial meaning of that phrase.  It related of course to the one and only, home run hitter extraordinaire Reggie Jackson.  Without going into too much detail, Jackson was the ultra-talented (a fine all-around player in his early days—speed, good arm, power) outfielder who started his career in Oakland and played briefly with Baltimore before finding his fame and fortune with George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees.

Jackson ultimately became a hero, helping the Yankees get to the playoffs a few times and actually win the World Series in 1977, I think it was.  The Yankees beat the Dodgers in 6 games for the title, and in that famous last game, Reggie hammered three home runs and forever earned the nickname “Mr. October”, because that’s when baseball games mean the most.  (They also named a candy bar after him, though that didn’t last…)

The point of this story takes us one step further.  Reggie’s indirect replacement as the newest (and highest-paid, for the time) superstar with the Yanks in the early 1980s was former San Diego Padres Dave Winfield, a wonderfully-talented player in his own right.  (Blue Jay fans will remember him for his exploits in helping the Jays get to and win the World series in 1992.)

But way before that, Winfield put up some big numbers with the Yankees in New York.  The problem is, the Yankees, as I recall, never won a World Series in the Winfield years, and I believe they only made it to the playoffs (including the World Series) once in Dave’s 10 or so years in the Bronx.

Winfield had some great years with New York, but in his one and only opportunity for true New York glory in the ’81 World Series, he managed only 1 hit in 27 plate appearances, after batting about .150 in the playoff series leading up to the World Series.  This (nearly) forever earned him the wrath of the tempestuous owner, Steinbrenner.  The controversial and quotable Yankee boss ingloriously referred to Winfield as “Mr. May”, the allegation being that Winfield was great during the early part of the baseball season when the pressure was off, but far less effective when the proverbial chips were down.

If I’m not mistaken, Steinbrenner retracted his unfortunate comments many years later, but the monikor stuck with Winfield for quite a while—unfairly so.

So fast forward to the present moment.  Kessel, who more and more looks like an artist on ice these days, but one with a pinch of grit, is on a pace (there’s that awful phrase again) to do some real damage to the NHL stats column this season.  He is flying, scoring, setting up teammates—clearly the most dangerous guy on the ice every night, and not just for the blue and white. (Interestingly, we are still waiting to see what he might do with an elite centre in Toronto.  Can it be Bozak? Connolly when he returns? Or is it enough that Lupul has been a bookend winger that seems to have strong chemistry with Kessel?)

And here’s where the Winfield (a Hall-of-Famer, as many of you well know) story kind of weaves its way into the Kessel mix.  Kessel has been playing the first five years of his still young NHL career with the hockey equivalent of the somewhat lowly 1970s San Diego Padres.  Oh, he got into some playoff games with the Bruins when he was first in the league as a kid with Boston (9 goals in 15 playoff games; small sample size but pretty good, eh?).  However, his years in Toronto have maybe kind of dulled our senses.

We see the speed, the shot, the singular talent.  But every year he has hit the skids, in terms of production, somewhere along the way.  As I’ve often argued here, it’s not always that his effort or overall play falls off, but for whatever reason, the puck just doesn’t go in for extended periods of time.

So this year, we will be waiting to see if he can be a little more consistent in terms of the distribution of his goal production.  No one is expecting him to score 50 or more goals, though when he plays like this, he sure looks like he could name his number.

But right now, he is indeed “Mr. October”.  And that’s fine.  When a team hasn’t even made the playoffs in eight years and hasn’t been to the finals in 45 years, somebody better be good in the fall.

What we will ready need, though, is for him to be “Mr. May”, which would be a very important title to have in the hockey world, unlike baseball.  May is when the checking is that much tighter, when you play only the best teams and all the elite, first-string goalies.  When sheer will often overtakes pure, even elite, talent—because it’s the playoffs.

“Mr. October” is great.  We’ll just have to wait awhile to see if that other acknowledgment will ever be merited.


8 comments:

  1. Well the Leafs won again. Once again they won becuase thier best players were thier best players. Kessel has been outstanding so far this year and by far the best player and I say that as one of the guys who has been critical of the trade.

    Although they won, this game seemed like a replay of past Leaf teams. Until a lucky bounce the powerplay was awful and I mean absolutely dreadful. The penalty kill was not good again. They must simply get better on the special teams but I don't see it happening. Sure they can come back against Winnipeg and Calgary but these are bubble teams as well. What happens when they have to play elite teams like Washington, Pittsburgh and Philidelphia?

    And once again our vaunted defense on paper is far less than the sum of its parts. Gardiner played well, Gunnarsson is probabbly our second best d and Phanuef has been outstanding. After them the rest have been a giant balck hole. Liles is like Kaberle in his own end, not physichal but often running around. For an offensive dman he sure seems to have an awful lot of trouble completing the break out pass. Other than the one assist on the powerplay tonight he has been dreadful as a quarterback on the powerplay. He might just need more time but it is going to have to come quick because now the Leafs start playing the contenders not also rans. Schenn has been very bad and Komisarek has regressed the last 2 games since a promising start. Franson has been ahh in his 2 games, maybe slightly below average.

    Again we can see the Leafs need an elite number one centerman. It is the most glaring hole they have. If David Steckel is going to be your solution as a number one your team probably isn't going far. The team has potential but you can see it from the first 5 games they still are a long way from being really good. Watching the last couple of games makes me dread what is going to happen in Boston tomorrow. Simply put they won't be erasing a third period lead for Boston like they did the last couple of games.

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  2. Michael-
    He's getting better all the time, too-
    @Hail_Grabovski Darryl Finch
    Games it took @PKessel81 to reach 7 goals: 44 in 06/07; 19 in 07/08; 12 in 08/09; 12* in 09/10; 8 in 10/11; 5 in 11/12.
    Boston- 75 goals in 247 games.(includes playoffs)
    Toronto- 69 goals in 157 games.
    He is an elite forward.

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  3. The noticeable thing for me is that Kessel and Lupul have chemistry. I think many of us thought that if we could find another scorer for Kessel's line (not to mention a top center, but we're going to have to wait on that one I guess), the line would become 4x as dangerous - they can both shoot and pass accurately, so the possibilities on any rush become multiplied. As we said in yesterday's post, when that line's on the ice, the electricity in the building really ramps up.
    I've felt for a while that Kessel is underrated as a playmaker. He and Lupul were two of about 5 Leafs who actually put the puck on the other guy's stick tonight.
    As for the game, Winnipeg outplayed us for most of it, and were in better position all night long. I felt their game plan was well constructed, and had us really stymied. MacArthur just isn't up to speed yet, neither is Schenn, and the Grabovski line looked lost. Gardiner looks like he's up for a couple of years, doesn't he?
    We'll see how we handle the Bruins. I counted about 6 solid body checks thrown by both teams tonight - I expect it will be different tomorrow!

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  4. Wilbur, you quite properly point up some shortcomings up the middle and on defence. As KidK and Gerund O' also point out, Kessel is an elite player right now and that helps to smooth over other less encouraging aspects of the overall team performance.

    I suppose the good news is that points are points and they have picked up 9 out of 10 with a number of guys still scuffling. They've caught some breaks, for sure, and a tougher part of the schedule lies ahead, but they will no doubt take those points...and run...

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  5. kessel's really been outstanding. i know he's streaky, but i don't mind his production cooling off, if the MGK line kicks it up... same with the powerplay... good grief the leafs have been far more effective/dangerous at even-strength... come on guys!

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  6. Long suffering Leaf fanOctober 20, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    Yep, I can see a little of Iafrate in Byfuglien, but in my humble opinion big Al had superior uncap natural talent.
    Analyzing last night game...lackluster...lackluster...until the third. Gee z, someone needs to buy these guys an alarm clock! Great to see that Phil the thrill has someone that can handle his passes in Lupul...a gift of his that wasn't completely appreciated in his first two years here. My advice to Grabovski...simplify man, simplify! Poor Schenn, he looks confuse in the early going. Hey Mike, does Jake Gardiner skating backward kind of remind you of another Leaf in the past? Hint, he wore number 2 and was drafted in 73. Some say that Gardiner reminds them of Housley, I beg too differ, he resembles a young Scott Niedermayer to me. Here hoping the Leafs play a strong 3 periods in Beantown like did at the end of last season.

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  7. Don't get me wrong I'm glad the Leafs are doing well. I think it is awesome the Kessel is proving me wrong, right now he is indeed an elite forward. However, it was right at this time last year that Boston blanked Phil and he went into a 20 game downward spin. His challenge now is to prove he can fight through these things. The way he is playing I really think he has turned a corner and even if he gets blanked tonight it won't turn a great start into a another so-so year.

    I guess this is where I am in my Leaf cheering this year. It's great they finished well last year. It's great they got off to a great start this year. It's great the Riemer looks like he is the real deal. It's great the Kessel is on fire. The only problem is we have seen all these things before, and the end of the year is the same no playoffs. The challenge now for the Leafs is to keep it going now. To be a true superstar means every night you have to produce and that is Kessel's challenge and for the first time since the trade I think he is up to it.

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  8. Alex C...special teams remains a challenge, but we'll see if the two power play goals last night helps then turn a corner...

    Long Suffering...Iafrate had so much ability....and a big man for his era who could fly... And I'm thinking you are referring to the fine skating if enigmatic Ian Turnbull???

    Wilbur- you've identified Phil's challenge...play well, often, and be a lead guy come playoff time.

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