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The Kessel evolution

It’s not an overly thorough analysis, I realize, to say that Phil Kessel is a better all around hockey player now than when he arrived in town a few years ago. I’m sure there are ‘stats’ that would speak more conclusively to this point, but I can only write about what I see. Kessel has always been a gifted guy with the puck on his stick. Heck, the Bruins knew that.  They just didn’t know for sure, I sense, what he would—or wouldn’t—become.

And he has also always had playmaking ability.  I don’t think he just suddenly discovered that gift in Toronto, as is sometimes suggested. Either way one looks at it, he seems to be at the absolute zenith of his career right now, a time where he has pulled together all the components of his game to become, indeed, a more complete player than most of us could have imagined even two seasons ago. Is he the best defensive forward in the league?  I’m sure not. And he will never be a physical forward in the way that we often think of guys who are rugged and play tough.  But I would argue his game is no longer a soft one, or that of a player who floats only on the perimeter. He may not be a classic power forward, but there is power in his game.

In terms of his offense, there have been too many examples of the winger’s finishing ability recently to cite.  You’ve all seen him bury his chances.  He can score off the rush, obviously, and off either wing.  He is driving to the net more.  But he also finds those quiet places where no one is, and the puck more often than not finds its way to him. (Yes, I’m sure he will go through a protracted scoring drought at some point this season; that seems to be his history, though as I’ve said here many times in the past, I’m not sure he plays all that differently during those times—it’s more that the puck just won’t go in for him.)

But what is even more appealing about his play these days is his absolute unselfishness and his ability to make those around him dangerous, too.  I have no idea how long the Kadri experiment (in Bozak’s absence) will be in effect, but they, with van Riemsdyk, are a formidable trio.  Against middlish opposition they will put up, I suspect, big numbers.  I anticipate they will do fine most nights even against the better clubs in either Conference. (Whether putting these eggs in one basket would work come playoff time, I don’t know right now.  I will say that regardless of where Kadri plays, we would appear to have sufficient secondary scoring capabilities—and the overall depth at the forward position—to be more than some clubs will be able to deal with.)

His passing skills really are sublime.  In a way you can say the same for Kadri and van Riemsdyk and that makes them all the more dangerous as a unit. Who do you focus on?

But what did I like most about the 4-0 win in Edmonton?  Kessel passing up a shot (and a possible hat trick goal) in the third period to set up rookie Morgan Rielly, who had a much better shooting angle.  At first I thought Rielly had scored his first NHL goal, but Kadri evidently deflected it home.

Edmonton has their own issues these days, so again, I won’t glorify the Leafs simply because they beat a spiraling club with no identity yet.  But 9 and 4 is 9 and 4.  And Kessel is an All-Star right now—and I don’t mean the mid-season, everyone-makes-it kind of All-Star. I’m talking about a player who is one of the best two players at his position in the game right now.

Is that a Toronto-centric view?  Perhaps.  But we’ll see how the rest of the league feels once they’ve seen the guy up close, with the supporting cast he now has around him.

There is a long way to go, and some ‘slumps’ to endure, but Kessel is putting on a show.  We should all appreciate it.

17 comments:

  1. I notice Kessel evolving and becoming a sublime player, however I notice it in a different way.

    Has anyone else noticed Kessel's two slashing incidents this year? One in the preseason and then again in the recent Pittsburgh game against Jussi Jokinen

    I know it looks bad, but I see it as evidence that Kessel's compete level is rising. He's becoming a bit more nasty. He's developing a bit more of killer instinct. He is moving away from his reputation as a soft player to become a more complete player who can win when the going gets tough. Last year he proved he can raise his game for the playoffs.

    I even thought I saw him throw a hit in one of the recent games.

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    1. You've raised this before and I don't think you're wrong, DP. All part of his rising compete level, as you put it.

      Your last line made me smile..."I even thought I saw him throw a hit..."...Good stuff.

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  2. Kessel has always been amazing to me. He's just so exciting to watch. He must also have a tremendous amount of inner strength. I've never seen a young player take so much abuse for something he had no control over. Four years of that would have broken me. Fans even blamed him for failing to make the playoffs in a year he scored thirty-seven goals. In the past I've read articles about Kessel that were nothing short of mean-spirited bullying and completely untrue. As a parent BOY!! did it make me mad!
    Phil has made them eat their words and I'm glad to see it. Did you notice he doesn't celebrate his own goals with the same enthusiasm that he celebrates those of his team-mates? A very self depreciating young man and a great team player. C.N.

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    1. Your last comment about Kessel not celebrating his own goals the way he does those of his teammates- does he not remind you of Sundin in this way? The smile on Sundin's face when one of his teammates scored a big goal is something that has always stayed with me. No fancy, me-oriented celebrations- just pure joy at seeing a teammate do well. Thanks C.N.

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  3. Michael I was one of those people who always bemoaned the Kessel trade, believing that the price paid was too high. Hearing the "thank you Kessel" chants in the early going reinforced my view. Since the playoffs last year and throughout this young season I have been swayed to say that it was an excellent trade for the Leafs. He appears quite calm and confident on the ice, not too high or too low no matter the situation. His overall game is extraordinary and at 26 is one of the top players in the league. He is a fierce competitor who just wants to win. He seems to have taken the disappointment of the defeat last spring and has elevated his game instead of allowing it to affect him negatively. All of the additions have obviously helped as well. Players do need time to mature and great patience is needed with them. The real good evaluators can see the finished product. Burke was right about Kessel. Also no more fools gold, this team as much as anyone has a legitimate shot at Lord Stanley, whew! there I said it.......

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    1. Well said on Phil, purch. And (I say with a smile) brave of you to include your last sentence about the Cup. Why can't Leaf fans dream? Are there really that many clearly "better" overall teams in the East?

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  4. If I am remembering correctly, Wilson took Kessel to task and actually benched him during games because of his defensive play. He has come a long way since those days to the point where Carlyle trusts him to be on the ice late in a game in lead protecting situations.

    When Burk acquired Kessel the Leafs had no legitimate top 6 forwards. He was in effect on his own until help arrived with the acquisition of Lupul. I give Kessel a great deal of credit for his hard work during those times and for becoming a complete elite player.

    As the Leafs have added legitimate top 6 players to the mix, pressure to do it all has eased and Kessel has been able to showcase his many talents. He is indeed one of the best players in the NHL and the world.

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    1. Few would argue with your conclusion right now, Pete Cam- thanks.

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  5. kessel seems to be able to anticipate where rebounds and passes are going to end up, and he's already there waiting for them. i hope he stays healthy (and out of the reach of goons like that currently-suspended oaf on the sabres). you mention a 'toronto centric' view of kessel.... i was listening to the feed for the recent toronto/minnesota game and the announcers for that team said 'that's why he's the best in the league!' so i think his talent is recognized league-wide at this point!

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    1. I think you're right, Alex- there is indeed a growing recognition that this guy can flat out play.

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  6. I am with the poster named Purch who went from hating “the trade” to liking it. In fact, I have never shifted my opinion about a trade so much in decades of following the Leafs. I guess Burke has to be complimented for either his vision. Or, maybe it’s just that he is Irish. In either case, it seems to be working out for him as his signature trade in the rebuild (or retooling or whatever it was) although Michael makes a compelling case for Phaneuf’s essential value.

    In the press conference following yesterday’s game Carlyle noted where Kessel is scoring his goals from, the so-called dirty area of the ice. So, here’s the question: How much credit does the coaching staff deserve? Or, can we attribute it all to a personal evolution of the player? Like a café au lait, a bit of both I imagine. Be that as it may, I imagine that we all agree that Kessel has looked like a different player under Carlyle’s staff than Wilson’s and Julien’s.

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    1. I guess we never really know why a particular player develops (for better or worse) as he does, Bobby C., but I sense you are correct: in this instance it is a combination of the player simply maturing and improving- with a nudge from the current coaching staff.

      I think a lot of us were concerned that Carlyle would kill the Leaf offensive instincts when he arrived and would turn them into defensive robots. While he obviously demands strong team defence (though he doesn't always get it, as we can see) he has not turned off the tap. Thanks Bobby.

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  7. Michael,

    I really enjoyed the last hangout episode. From Sean McIndoe to James Mirtle. Very impressive so far, mainstream guys and all that. You are absolutely correct, journalists are not fans. They are paid to report, not gush about their heroes. Great stuff in episode ten. Read a little of your book yesterday, so far wonderful stuff.

    Back to the gushing, sure is a lot of it in Toronto for Kessel. There was the same thing going on in this town when Sundin was here. I think of them for the most part, as guys who are in very similar situations. Both are very good players. I don't consider either of them to be in the elite category in the league. When Mats was here, there were lots of other forwards I would have traded him for in a one for one trade. I can say the same for Kessel. There are many, many, many forwards in the league right now that I would rather have in the blue and white. In fact, I will list a bunch of them, in order. Crosby, Toews, Datsyuk, Malkin, Bergeron, Tavares, Stamkos, Getzlaf, Perry, Couture, Thornton, H. Sedin, Lucic, Ovechkin, Staal, St. Louis. There are 15 forwards that would make the Leafs a more complete team immediately. Does anyone think that the GMs of these players would trade their guy straight up for Phil the thrill? The answer is no, they wouldn't, neither would you.

    This love for Kessel is a Toronto thing, as fans we love the guys that wear our colours. Since the 2009, 2010 season our very own Phil the thrill has scored 128 goals playing for the Maple Leafs. A really good total in my opinion. Some serious skill there. Over that exact same period of time, Matt Moulson scored 120. Would we be as gushy about having Matt Moulson as our poster boy? The funny thing is, I have no idea whether or not Moulson is a good hockey player when it matters. No clue if he is good without the puck, or solid defensively. Would I want him on the ice in a game seven with a lead? I sure as heck know that I want Bergeron and Lucic on my team, when the chips are down. Kessel hasn't proven a thing to me yet. The goal my friends is to win the Stanley Cup. I have seen nothing from Kessel that tells me he is capable of leading the team to that goal.

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    1. You know I appreciate your perspective on things here, Jim. Your view on this one is a minority one, which does not make it "wrong". Others will disagree, and that's fine. But you raise fair points, many of the same kinds of things I have suggested about Phil in the past.

      The proof really will be in taking the team well into the playoffs. He's only one part of that, but a key part, yes.

      Regular season play has always been and will always be one thing. Championship level play under pressure is a whole other kettle of fish. Thanks Jim.

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    2. Thanks for your comment about "The Maple Leafs of My Youth", by the way. I appreciate it a great deal when regular VLM readers also go the extra mile and support my work in this way. Thank you, Jim.

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  8. I have always been a Kessel supporter, and felt he was treated quite unfair by many fans and media members both in Boston and in Toronto. No one ever doubted his natural skills, he just seemed to get a bad rap for his alleged lack of leadership and work ethic. I can't help but think of Saku Koivu or Mario Lemieux going through cancer treatment back in the day, how they were considered heroic and couragous and the whole world was in their corner. Somehow everyone seemed to forget that a teenage prodigy in Boston went through the exact same thing and quietly came back and produced at a high level. No one wanted to take into account what Kessel may have been going through personally, or just give a kid a break - after all, what teenager playing in the NHL really shows that much maturity and leadership?

    So he was taken out of the hot water in Boston and put in the proverbial frying pan in Toronto. He quietly played through all the questions and criticisms he never asked for or deserved for the trade here. And he showed us what we already knew, that he was an electric skater and sniper. He also played quite a one-dimensional game, constantly picking his spots to rush up ice alone and try to beat the defense around the edge for a shot on net.

    His playmaking ability has certainly developed, he showed absolute brilliance last season in that area and has continued so far this year. I'm starting to think that the big contract he signed has taken off the pressure he has felt to just score goals, and allowed him to become a more well-rounded player. The results have shown in increased playmaking, unselfishness (as noted in his pass to Rielly last night and on Raymond's empty netter a couple weeks ago), and a willingness to be more fiesty in the neutral and defensive zone.

    A lot of dynamics are going to factor in a player's development and performance. It goes without saying that Keseel can play a much more complete game with the linemates and teammates surrounding him today than a couple years ago.

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    1. Wonderful post, Pete. But the point that caught me most of all is that relating to his contract. Instead of feeling as though he has to "live up" to the deal, might he indeed feel like now, he can just be himself and play? Thanks Pete.

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