The Wednesday night tilt in Pittsburgh did not quite set up as nicely as the home encounter at the ACC versus the Bruins the night before. But with Crosby still absent, Letang out for a while and Fleury needing a night off, the Leafs looked like a team with a shot at two points—albeit playing a pretty hot Penguin team.
The Leafs are still in the playoff hunt, and knew they were playing a goalie that was between the pipes for only the second time in his NHL career. And they showed some early jump, despite losing Brown and Franson early. Kessel scored yet again, then Gunnarsson re-directed a nice Grabbo wrister to give the Leafs a lead that, under Carlyle, you’d like to see them, well, close the deal.
Unfortunately, the Penguins still are the Penguins, even without some top performers. They inched their way back, and eventually earned the one-goal victory. The Leafs probably had their best opportunity to tie the game late in the contest on the power-play, when Kessel was in his familiar spot, but the Pittsburgh rookie goaltender made a nice save off the quick release. When Bozak shot the rebound toward the empty net, only to see his would-be goal hit Connolly’s foot, you sort of sensed this was not going to end well.
Win or lose, I’m not going to get into “everything is going well, don’t the Leafs look a lot better under Carlyle” if they win, or, “it’s the same old Leafs” when if and they lose. They are competing pretty hard, fighting for pucks, still making nice plays. In fairness, they did all those things fairly often under Wilson the last couple of seasons—when they were usually a good third-period team and staged a number of successful comebacks.
But for now, yes, guys are working hard, competing. Even Connolly seems to be more engaged. But the line-up will change again because of injuries, and perhaps because Komisarek is a minus 4 in the last two games.
As for the goaltending “situation”, I have no idea. Gusstavsson has made some big stops, playing all three games so far under Carlyle. I’ve said for two seasons, at least, that at some point if they want to find out if Gus can play, he needs to start a string of games without fear of being pulled in-game or benched for the next game. But at this stage of the season, I’d also like to ensure that the young man we have signed for the next two seasons and who saved our butts a year ago (Reimer) gets his share of games in too—so he can also head into the off-season with some confidence.
Some of you will no doubt recall the beginning of the 2009-’10 season. It was Brian Burke’s first full season in charge as the General Manager of the Maple Leafs. Ron Wilson was entrenched and fully secure as the team’s Head coach. Wilson was the “firmer hand”, the guy who would push the team to do the things they refused to do under Paul Maurice during Maurice’s two years behind the Leaf bench.
The team’s biggest acquisition was, or course, Phil Kessel. He started the season on the injure list, and when he returned to the line-up, Wilson gave him a long leash. He wasn’t called upon to do much other than score goals—a much-needed skill set on a team not exactly generously gifted in that regard. “Phil the Thrill” rewarded Wilson (and Burke) with 30goals in his first season as a Leaf, in only 70 games.
By the beginning of the 2010-’11 season, the Leafs were pumped and ready to roll out of training camp. Unlike the previous season, when they were without a win in their firs eight or so games, as I recall, they cranked out four consecutive wins to kick off the new, hope-filled season. But an interesting thing happened. Wilson, in one of those early games, benched Kessel, sending a quiet message that more would be expected of him in his second season as a Maple Leaf.
In fact, lest we forget, it was the middle of that 2010-’11 season, was it not (and not so very long ago), when Kesel was again tied to the bench at one popint in mid-season, or a bit before, was it? And after a practice the next day, he shocked Leaf world when he grunted a comment about maybe needing a change. The media, naturally, ran with it, wondering if Kessel was “asking out”, wanting to be dealt out of town.
Kessel quickly met with Burke and was reminded that he was, in fact, happy here in Toronto. Also, that his comment had nothing to do with wanting a trade, or anything along those lines. It was maybe a change in lines, we were supposed to be believe.
Now, to be clear, frustrated athletes, like any of us, are prone to say things they may not have chosen to say a day later, but “in the moment” they react and say things. Fortunately, most of us aren’t asked to give “interviews” to all kinds of reporters when we are still perspiring from a hard day at work. So the opportunity for us to say something controversial just doesn’t arise too often as it does for someone like Kessel.
In any event, that was all smoothed over and everyone bought the Leaf-crafted lines. But my point is, as the Leafs were getting more “serious” about getting better, and Wilson needed a stronger all-around game from Kessel, the coach was demanding it. And he expected Kessel to respond. By and large, Kessel did, at least offensively, with 32 goals and 64 points overall.
Fast-forward to this season. Lupul and Kessel provided a lot of the early offensive fireworks, meshing beautifully together many nights. Kessel has continued to put up big-time points, and we were led to believe, by the Leaf organization powers that be (and even the mainstream media and commentators like Greg Millen…) that Kessel was indeed playing a stronger all-around game—and was much more responsible in his own zone, playing a 200-foot game, etc.
Of course, we all know where things now stand. The Leafs hit some kind of a wall about a month ago, and could not get out of it. In came Randy Carlyle, who is supposed to make things better. If Wilson was a more demanding coach than Maurice, then we are led to believe that Carlyle will be even more demanding, and that it will be Carlyle’s way or, well, you don’t play.
I don't know about that. I don’t know that the Leafs have the luxury just yet of sitting their star players, nor should they, if they under-perform on the scale of higher expectations. The idea is to get their top players to “buy in”, to play the aforementioned complete game, over all 200 feet of the ice surface.
Those who follow this site will know that I’ve mentioned Kessel in this context before: as in, will he ever really be able to adjust his game—as he gets older and matures—to become say, a Mike Modano or a Steve Yzerman type of player. That is, players who, when they were young, were largely offensive players but after several years in the league, came to see that there was a better way to play.
Oh, I know Yzerman has this reputation that he was a great all-around player right out of junior, and to a certain extent, he was. But he was an explosive offensive player, who still “cheated” on offense. And there were, just as there are with Kessel, questions about whether he was a true leader. So much so that the Wings, and Scotty Bowman, almost traded him to the expansion Ottawa Senators.
I don’t know if Kessel is on a career path to be a leader, but any player willing to pay the price can become a better all-around NHL’er. I only use Yzerman and Modano (another elite speedster who only become truly clutch when he accepted that the game was best played at a determined level over every inch of the inch) as examples. You can fill in the blank with whatever name works for you.
Kessel turns 25 when the 2012-’13 season gets underway next October. He is young, so highly skilled, so explosively fast and dangerous. I don’t ever see him being a physical player, or a guy with that “presence”, but who knows? Guys evolve, right?
But Carlyle will need Phil to play hard and smart, consistently, all over the rink next season and beyond. Against Pittsburgh Wednesday night, Kessel was often dangerous on the attack, as he has been most nights this season—even when he doesn’t score a goal or set up a linemate. But his tendency, seen the night before against Boston as well, to not make certain important little plays—get the puck deep, cover the right man with intensity, etc.—too often bite him, and therefore his team, on the back side.
Right now, it’s early days under a new coach. Carlyle, as I posted a few days ago, won’t likely be throwing any guys under the bus just yet. He is trying to drive these guys to the finish line and grab a playoff spot.
The larger prize lies ahead. But to get there, Kessel may be Carlyle’s example “A”. Not only for himself, but as an example to teammates that if he, the team’s best and most dangerous offensive player, accepts the responsibility of becoming a “total package” Leaf—an elite player—others will follow.
If that happens, then it will be very good news in Leafland.
Now, if we hear the words from Kessel but don’t see the delivery, he will inevitably be on a collision course with Carlyle. It’s not a scene Burke ever wants to have to deal with, as in “picking sides”. So my guess is Kessel will spend time this off-season getting ready to play a slightly different style of game come next September. He can still be that explosive, smart, offensive force. We just need him to be serious about being “responsible”—and not just talk a good game.