A few thoughts today on a player who has been a lightning rod since he arrived in Toronto before the 2009-’10 NHL season in a trade for the ages: that player would be, of course, the dynamic Maple Leaf winger, Phil Kessel.
I don’t need to go over his history with Boston, his relationship with Claude Julien, his return from a serious health scare at a very young age, or whether the Leafs or the Bruins will end up "winning" that deal. (That’s all interesting to talk about or even debate, and I've certainly done it here, but it is also history.) And we all know his reputation as a soft, one-way player—a reputation some would argue was well-deserved even through his first seasons in blue and white.
But what I am referring to today is simply this: I think Kessel, for all his offensive stats and his seemingly “improved” defensive work at times, has even more to give the Leafs—and us as fans. This is not a criticism. In fact, it’s a compliment.
For years I have said in this space that Kessel, essentially, “is what he is”. That is to say, he is a speedy, sometimes electric but generally one-dimensional player. He can make plays, score goals, but, my thinking has been, he would likely never become an all-around player, he will never be that big-game guy. Maybe most importantly, he would never be a leader, because, well, he just seemed to lack the passion that I associate with people that are inspirational players in this sport.
But all that said, I can’t help but feel that Kessel can, possibly, become more than simply “Phil the Thrill”. Yes, he is in his prime in terms of offensive prowess. He will never be faster than he is now. Maybe he will never be more confident.
But what I feel I am noticing is that he is also comfortable (finally?) in his own skin in Toronto, and is becoming a player who may in fact be able to be a bit more than simply a point-producer here. He already is our top player (arguably on any given day Lupul or Phaneuf could be in that discussion), but I’m suggesting his evolution—once thought to be someone stagnant—continues. (By the way, his two-goal effort Tuesday night against the Islanders is not the genesis of this post. Kessel had been silent, production-wise, for a few games, which is entirely in keeping with his history- and also that of most NHL snipers. Whether he scores or not in a particular game has precious little to do with the subject matter I am covering today...)
I’ve often used names like Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano as examples of what I thought Phil would not become. That is, they were also players who came into the league very young, and were offensively gifted. But until certain coaches (read Scotty Bowman and Ken Hitchcock) got a hold of them, they were on a path to be really nice, skill players—but not necessarily anything more.
But as we know both of them morphed into complete NHLers and they both become indisputable leaders on championship squads.
That was the bar I spoke of here, the one I said Kessel would never reach.
I should weigh my words carefully here: I do not know if Kessel’s ceiling is to be those kinds of players. I really don’t. But he is young enough that, if he really wants to become a leader, a Hall-of-Fame “difference-maker” type of player, that could happen.
Neither Yzerman or Modano were physical players in classic terms. They were skill guys who learned to play an all-around game all over the ice. But they played the game with drive and determination and became hard to play against. They fought for ice. They played their position well defensively. (Playing defense is mostly about awareness and hard work. Any player that wants to be good defensively—I mean realty good—can be effective in this area. They may not become Selke Trophy winners, but they take pride in that part of their game.)
But the biggest thing I feel we are seeing with Kessel these days is that the guy cares. He has a passion for the game. I’m not saying it wasn’t there before; maybe I just wasn’t seeing it. But I’m seeing it now. Do you see how he reacts after a teammate scores a big goal? It is reminiscent of Mats Sundin’s joy when the big Swede—who many also thought would never be a leader—would embrace a fellow Leaf after a big goal. Mats was seemingly happier for their success than he was for himself.
I remember penning pieces here in the past about Kessel not playing (injured? not willing?) for Team USA at the World Championships in the spring time. It made me wonder how much he loved the game when he wasn’t in the mood, and therefore how much the Leafs could count on him if things ever really went south. Could he be a player that, not only by talent but by sheer force of will could be “that guy” when the going got tough?
I still don’t know if we have our answer. In fact, though he is in his 8th NHL season already, at the age of 26, he still has plenty of time to get better. At some point his skills or speed will decline, but he has vision, hands, smarts. Those things last longer than the legs do.
If these other parts of his game are there, if he has the passion to lead or at least not just slide into the background when it matters most, he can be even better that the Kessel we see today—which is already pretty good.
We have noticed a bit more of an edge to his game this season. Not a nastiness, mind you, but it’s almost as though he is beginning to be annoyed by the attention he gets on the ice, and is quietly fighting back—not always with his fists, but in terms of his demeanor and attitude. This can be only a good thing for him, his career—and the team.
Does Kessel have even more to give? Can he become a better, more complete player? Can he become something of a leader? Does he have the passion to compete when it matters most against the toughest opposition? Now signed to a lucrative, long-term contact, can he ultimately help make this team a champion?
I don’t think any of us has the definitive answer to all of those questions. No one does. But I’m beginning to think my earlier assessments about Kessel’s career ceiling may have been off base.
Where do you stand?