One of the most fascinating examples of an athletic metamorphosis over the past few seasons has been that of none other than the uber-talented winger Ilya Kovalchuk.
As I acknowledged in posts over the past few days, I have always been a “Kovy” fan because of his extreme skill level and eye-popping highlight-reel goal capabilities from his earliest days as a Thrasher. (There was also a bit of an emotional connection because he was my youngest son’s first “favorite” hockey player…) But I was absolutely of the view that Lou Lamoriello had 'lost it' in not only acquiring Kovalchuk in the first place but then re-signing him to what I thought was a ridiculously lengthy and costly free-agent contract the following summer.
As I said yesterday, I appear to have been badly mistaken about Lamoriello and Kovalchuk—though my basic view on these excessive long-term contracts has not really shifted.
But perhaps the real “story” in all this is that Kovalchuk has seemingly become one of those hockey players that has indeed matured to prove, once again, that “less is more”. That is, by focusing less on his extraordinary and natural offensive goal-scoring skills and accepting the importance of two-way play, he has morphed into the kind of player a really good team can actually depend on at this time of the year—when gritty hockey matters possibly even more than goal-scoring.
His apparent evolution got me thinking again about two names I’ve often cited here in the past—Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Mike Modano in Minnesota/Dallas. Both of these then young forwards (Yzerman in the mid-‘80s and Modano in the early ‘90s) were magnificent offensive players. Yzerman was not terrible defensively, but it wasn’t until Scotty Bowman came to Detroit (and almost traded the Red Wing captain to Ottawa) that Yzerman really found his way fully as a brilliant performer at both ends of the ice.
For Modano, his transformation occurred under another intense task-master, Ken Hitchcock. Modano won a Cup with Hitchcock in Dallas, just as Yzerman helped the Wings to capture a number of championships in the Motor City. They were ably supported by a host of driven, determined teammates, of course, but I focus on these two guys as fairly recent high-profile examples (there are others, of course) of players who, over time, embraced a lesser offensive role (and less statistical “glory” at times) for the good of their respective teams.
This brings me to a current situation with the Maple Leafs. If Yzerman, Modano (both Hall-of-Fame talents) and now even Kovalchuk, of all people (who would have forecast this?) can “change” and become complete players...what, if anything, does this mean for the Leafs and their expectations for—and around—Phil Kessel?
With six NHL seasons behind him already, and some impressive goal-scoring numbers as well, Kessel doesn’t turn 25 until the 2012-’13 season gets underway in October. We all know the Leafs have their own high-end taskmaster on board behind the bench now in none other than Randy Carlyle—who happens to have a Stanley Cup on his coaching resume with the Anaheim Ducks, so he knows what it takes to win in the spring.
And herein lies the interesting—and somewhat pressing—question for the Maple Leafs: what are the true, honest expectations of the somewhat enigmatic young winger? Are they—as a coaching staff and as an organization—satisfied with him as primarily a tremendously fast, skilled forward with that quick release, a guy who can put up between 30 and 40 goals a season seemingly without breaking a sweat? (And how many more, if he cashed in on even a small percentage of the overall chances generated by his speed and moves..?)
Is that enough for them? Or are they hoping for (or at some point, will be insisting on…) more from Kessel? Will they expect and/or demand greater accountability at both ends of the ice?
This applies as well to his 2011-’12 linemate, Joffrey Lupul, but I cite Kessel today because, in many ways, he has been the centerpiece of the Burke regime and the Leaf GM’s much-scrutinized “re-build” on the fly.
Kessel is younger, faster, and even more talented, as best I can determine, than Lupul (who gave us way more than we ever dreamed this past season). And to a certain extent, Kessel is the offensive lynchpin, the catalyst around whom the Leaf offense revolves.
The coming season will likely be a telling one for Kessel—and for his relationship with Carlyle and the entire organization. All the “right” words were uttered at the end of this past season. Carlyle sounded very supportive of Kessel, but what would we expect (especially after Carlyle's relationship with Lupul had deteriorated badly in Anaheim…)?
I guess the longer-term question I have for you is this: are you, as a Leaf fan, happy with Kessel as he is right now? Or do you want - or expect - more?
Further, do you see him as someone who will evolve like the aforementioned Yzerman, Modano and (surprisingly) Kovalchuk and become, if not necessarily a “leader”, a more complete NHL’er?
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts….