I should be clear right up front. I’m not providing an in-depth breakdown of Phil Kessel’s play today in all four (or is it six, or 8) zones of the ice. Other sites can do that much better than I ever could.
I do appreciate the fact that the former Bruin is still maturing as a player, as we would expect, at the still very young age of 24. And I certainly like that the winger is seemingly playing with more defensive awareness at times, while also using his linemates even better than before. And now the guys actually wants to kill penalties, too.
That’s all good.
But set aside for the moment all that nice stuff and wins and losses, stats or the other qualities that he might have that help the team grab points in the standings. My focus today is just on this: I absolutely love watching the guy play right now.
Every night, even those evenings when Phil seems to be “off” (like Tuesday night against the 'Canes), or his mind just wanders a bit from the task at hand, I just have a feeling that we never know when he is going to make a rush, use that speed to make a play or break out in some fashion that will turn the game around in the Leafs’ favor.
There is no doubt that other guys have had their moments on offense and contributed to the cause, helping the Leafs get off to their first truly decent start in, well, years. (Connolly, for example, was the difference-maker against Carolina.) And certainly Lupul has had a major influence on Kessel’s performance. I don’t think there is too much debate about that.
More and more this season he also seems to be not restricting himself to just sticking to his wing. He will float across the ice to his off-wing and make plays coming in on his off-side. He has a particularly neat little move where he suddenly cuts across to the middle of the ice in the attacking zone at high speed from his off-wing. He can therefore get a shot off from a great angle, still at top speed and often off his “wrong” foot which is doubly difficult for the goalie to handle. Rebounds result—if not a goal.
We all know about his quick release. If anything, he has that down now to a fine art. Sure, defenders block his attempts on occasion, but as often as not, he gets a dangerous shot off. (I’m sure someone keeps stats on these things, but I would love to know not just how many shots on goal he has—that stat is easily accessible and he has a ton—but how many shots he actually takes and how many miss but are oh-so-close to the target…)
I guess the bottom line is, he has become a truly dangerous presence on the ice, someone the opposition has to be aware of. (Interestingly, not that long ago, I penned a piece wondering when was the last time the Leafs had a player the opposition had to really be afraid of…) I’m well aware that things will get tougher as the season wears on, as teams do indeed focus more on Kessel and Lupul. And if the Leafs were to make the playoffs, the checking will be that much tighter still.
But for now, I’m just enjoying the fact that he is a pleasure to watch. He is an exciting player, not because of his big hits or his leadership or his toughness. Simply because he has an eye-catching "don't want to miss a shift" style to watch, with speed, puck control, vision and the ability to make great plays at high speed.
He is at the top of his game right now, and someone who is worth being on hand at the ACC to see, or to turn on the television to watch on the small screen.
Either way, for me right now, he is the Leafs' “Mister Excitement”.