To be clear up front, I don’t place a whole lot of stock in the Olympic hockey games as some kind of telltale sign of a player’s ability to perform in the clutch. These short-term, thrown-together rosters don’t do much for me. And I’m not sure all players (any?) can be fully or fairly “judged” in performance terms given the ridiculously short (and small) sample size of those games.
This leads me, however, to a bit of a point. I’m sure many Maple Leaf boosters everywhere were watching the Olympics with some degree of passion and zeal. Whether you are a Leaf fan from Canada, the United States or any number of other countries, you likely had an eye on how individuals like Nikolai Kulemin, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk performed for their respective countries. (I’m guessing a number of Leaf enthusiasts also kept an eye on our friend Leo Komarov, in the hopes of seeing the ex-Leaf return at some point to the blue and white. I would be among those who would vote “yes” to a Komarov return, because of the ‘hard to play against’ quality he brings.)
That all said, by now I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this. And here it is: as I’ve acknowledged here and elsewhere, I’m no longer a big Olympic hockey guy. And to be totally honest, I did not watch every minute of the tournament, even when Canada was playing.
But from a Leaf perspective, I posted a question here a few days ago that, while a bit ridiculous on the one hand, did create some interesting feedback. And in that post I specifically referenced Kessel.
Let me be clear again: I think Kessel is one of the most exciting Leaf players of my lifetime. (I talked about him at length during a recent VLM podcast.) He has his flaws, well documented, but he has, I would argue, even worked on some of those things. Right now, in his dashing and confident prime, he is a flat-out dangerous offensive force in the NHL.
Now while I did not, as I just indicated, watch the Olympics moment to moment, the speedy Leaf winger was (if I’m not mistaken) one of the leading scorers early on in the tournament. In context, the U.S. was not exactly playing against the ’76 Montreal Canadiens in those contests, so the “numbers” don’t mean a while heck of a lot, at least to me.
What was noticeable, though, is that as the event drew to its dramatic (antic-climactic in the minds of some) conclusion and the U.S. faced strong opposition in the medal round (Canada and then Finland) Kessel was not able to break through and deliver key goals when the U.S. side needed it most.
But those are still the games where true difference-makers and leaders (like, say, a Teemu Selanne) step up and 'will' their teammates to victory.
That didn’t happen with the Americans in either of their last two games, and I was not watching closely enough to have any idea what role our man Phil had in the somewhat ignominious exit.
Stats and numbers never tell the whole tale (at least rarely), and you may feel number 81 played really well against Canada and Finland in the medal round games. Even if you are of the view that Kessel may not have been at his best in those big games for Team U.S.A., as I indicated above I’m not a fan of making a lot out of this event, much less pinning responsibility on one or two guys. This is supposed to be the ultimate team sport, right?
But sports are often unfair, at least in the manner in which we tend to judge athletes. In my view, (and I’ve been following football for more than 50 years) Peyton Manning is, all things needed to excel at that position considered, the finest all-around quarterback that I have ever seen play. I won’t list all his attributes. I'll simply say that year after year he helps put his team in a position to win, every time out. But because he has only “won” one Super Bowl, there are questions about his legacy. And this strikes me as tremendously unfair, given football is also a team game, too, and outcomes are determined as much by defense and special teams as what the quarterback does on offense.
So when I bring this kind of fan and media penchant for assessing things so harshly closer to home (and all of us who are part of Leafland), and in particular contemplate perceptions around Kessel and the Leafs, I can’t help but ask the question that so many will be thinking, if they’re honest: do you see Kessel as the kind of player who will be clutch for the Leafs in the playoffs, when it matters most?
I think most of us feel Kessel got a bit of a monkey off his back last May, when he helped the Leafs come achingly close to upsetting the Bruins in 7 games in the first round of the playoffs. He had some wonderful moments in that series, after several years of not being able to deliver against the Bruins on a consistent basis in the regular season. We all understand that he was originally under immense pressure playing Boston because of "the trade", and he finally erased a lot of doubts with his play last spring.
But bottom lines are bottom lines. Kessel, as dynamic a player as there is in the league, has yet to lead the Leafs to a playoff series win in his time in Toronto. But again, we’re back to the notion that there is more to a team than its individual superstar talents.
This spring the Leafs should be poised for a playoff breakthrough, at least based on their results over the past few weeks heading into the Olympic break. This can’t, however, be all on Kessel.
Still, I ask again: will Kessel be the player who will lead his teammates in the clutch? Will he be able to carry the team on his back and say, “follow me, boys”? Will he be a player who will fight through the tough checking this spring and produce big goals at key times, either for himself or his linemates?
As the Olympics ground to a disappointing close for the U.S. side, Kessel’s name was prominent among those who we can say, fair or not, did not deliver when it mattered most against top opposition.
Hey, maybe if Tyler Bozak was an American, we’d have witnessed a very different outcome. Who knows?
But if someone who I look at as arguably the best of his generation in football, like Peyton Manning, has to deal with incessant media and fan scrutiny after what he has accomplished (including post career-threatening injuries), we can expect our local superstar to have to deal with high expectations, too—and criticism if his "individual" playoff performances in the years ahead ever fall short of those lofty expectations.
Personally, I feel no differently about Kessel than I did before the Olympics, in terms of his ability to take the Leafs where they need to go. I’m also no more convinced he is a leader, that he can 'will' a team to victory—but no less, either.