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.