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With the sprint to the finish ahead, will Phil Kessel be a clutch performer for the Maple Leafs down the stretch and in the playoffs?

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.

Look, I think the Americans were emotionally “done like dinner” (as old-time Leaf winger "Tiger" William, right, put it so eloquently about the rival Broad Street Bullies after the first two games of the 1977 quarter-finals) by the time they got to the Bronze medal game.  My guess is that with the Gold medal out of reach, the U.S. players were likely wanting to get on the next plane home for a couple of days of relaxation before a return to the NHL grind.

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.


You?

25 comments:

  1. I saw most of the game versus Finland, and the semi-final game in its entirety. In the case of the latter, credit must be given in part to Canada's tremendous backcheck for keeping tabs on the dangerous sniper. However, I expected more. The two main flaws in his game as far as I'm concerned manifested themselves during the game versus Canada: Lack of net drive and his propensity to bail out petrified, backpedalling defencemen by shooting from just inside the blue line (both flaws are intertwined).

    With that being said, that should not be a measuring stick of what he may do in the playoffs should we make it (I'm a jinx-crazy person -- the berth is nowhere near assured).

    For one, the playoffs call for a best-of-seven elimination process. And this is key as it relates to your point about Kessel possibly being perceived as not performing "when it counted".

    Crosby didn't produce in the same game Kessel failed to produce offense -- yet for Kessel it is easily identified as "the game that counted" because the Americans never got to play another game.

    Crosby had another chance to redeem himself -- and thankfully for him -- he did today. But playoffs present athletes with the opportunity to bounce back from a bad game 1, game 2, game 3 etc.. Heck, if Kessel were to fail to score in the first 6 games of a series, and record a hat-trick in the deciding seventh game, he would be deemed to be "clutch".

    Last point: I most certainly trust Kessel to produce in the playoffs, but that burden also has to be shared with Phaneuf, Clarkson, Lupul, JVR, Franson etc... It's a team game as you said.

    In short, great post and I look forward to seeing other people's comments.

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    1. Playoffs provide, as you outline, Antoni (leafdiaries.com), an opportunity for "redemption" if I can call it that, if and when a player/goalie struggles in a particular game. (Felix Potvin, for example, had a number of iffy outings in the '93 playoffs, but seemingly always bounced back with a big effort in the next game...).

      As you quite properly note, no one player can do it alone and should never be relied upon to bail his team out. The greatest players of all-time need help- and lots of it, if a team hopes to have any shot at a championship.

      Kessel is an exciting player, but driving to the net at playoff time is key for almost all offensive difference-makers. They may still score some nice goals, but much of the time goals will come from sheer willpower. Thanks for kicking off the discussion in a thoughtful manner, Antoni.

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    2. You`re very welcome. Great post.
      Do you think the disappointing ending to the U.S. run will have any domino effect on Kessel and JVR's play in the stretch run?

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    3. My instincts suggest they should be fine, with no hangover from the Olympics. I think once they are back with the Leafs for a couple of games, Antoni, they'll pick up where they left off.

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  2. I think that Olympic hockey is all right when Canada wins but if we lose it actually proves nothing as one lucky bounce or one injury can mean the difference between gold and getting absolutely nothing. One deflection off a skate and maybe Latvia upsets Canada. Just the same it is nice to see the best players playing so I was up this morning to cheer Canada on and it was nice to see how they pretty much dominated today and also every game in the tournament and were clearly the best team by a wide margin. I really don't like the larger ice surface and the games in 2010 on the smaller surface were faster and more exciting. Having said that if Canada lost it really wouldn't mean much in the big picture I follow the Leafs twelve months a year and Olympic hockey is two weeks every four years.So either way later this week I would l be watching the games that actually mean a lot more to me, like the Leafs Habs on Saturday and a Canada Olympic loss would be history.

    Canada played unbelievable defensive hockey only allowing three goals in five games and they were the better team on paper and on the ice so it is not surprising to see Kessel get shut down when everything was on the line. Kessel can score but not when he is not allowed to take chances and forced to sit back and play it safe. Against weaker opposition Kessel was a constant threat when the U.S. was attacking and making things happen.

    As the Leafs will not be playing a Team Canada and have three lines that can provide offence I think it will not be so easy to shut Kessel down on the Leafs and if he is shut down the other lines will have an easier time of it. So to answer your question I think Kessel is even better than a year ago and he looks more intense as if he really wants to prove he not only deserves the big money but is also one of the best NHL players. This year he really looks ljke like he wants to win and I really believe he is going to be the guy that comes through in the playoffs.


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    1. You make a great point, Alton, that the Leafs are no longer a one-line team. So not everything needs to fall on Kessel and his linemates. If, as you say, Kessel wants to prove that he is indeed one of the best players in the NHL, the playoffs are the time to do it. Thanks Alton.

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  3. I think Kessel is a pure ( and very exciting) goal-scorer and play-maker. The rest of his game gets better every year and he seems to be taking on more of a leadership role but he is what he is. That's okay because that's what the Leafs need from him. He has shown he can be a game breaker and has indeed carried the team on his back at times when the first line was the only line scoring. He's a tape to tape passer and that snap shot is like a heat-seeking missile.

    In the game against the Canadians he was being covered by the best defensive forward , in my opinion, in the world--Jonathan Toews. Carlyle is very creative with Kessel. He knows exactly how he needs to use him and would have been throwing him out on different lines to avoid Toews. Bylsma never tried that until the end of the game. I watched the last U.S. game. Finland wanted the medal very badly and played their best, the U.S. simply didn't want to be there at all. This happened to Canada in Turin but this isn't a situation that happens in the NHL.

    I am hoping Phil comes back angry and not despondent. I expect he'll come back wanting to prove something. A forty goal season is within reach and the Leafs will need him at his best with a rough schedule heading into March. I'm preparing for a roller-coaster in the stretch but I think the Leafs will manage it. C.N.

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    1. Kessel may well come back ready to demonstrate he is a big-game player, C.N. -if so, he should be something to watch.

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  4. I thought Kessel played just fine - he scored a bunch, and he set up a number of guys who didn't finish. And that's the issue, isn't it? As you say, it's a team game. What we saw from the Canadians was possibly the best defensive team effort I've ever seen, in one of the fastest, smartest games I've ever seen (and I'm including both teams in that assessment). Phil had some good chances, and set up some other ones. Besides, his inability to score in that game paled beside Kane's, wouldn't you say?
    Can Phil be clutch? Most definitely! Playing against the best of the best, he was the best scorer. And, just as with the Leafs, he was a threat almost every time he was on the ice. If his Leaf teammates can do their part, I don't see any reason that Kessel won't be key for us through the stretch run. I'd say he's playing the best hockey of his career.

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    1. I would agree that Kessel at at his apparent peak right now, career-wise, Gerund O'. He is confident and free-wheeling and a consistent threat on offense. He should come back ready to roll.

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  5. Kessel did fine in the Olympics and he seems to be one of the types that can keep an even keel. He doesn't get too excited very often and he doesn't seem to get down very often. So even though the USA lost the plot in the last 2 games, I don't see him coming back to the NHL showing much different than he did when he left.

    Sidebar: As Antoni mentioned the one glaring weakness that is keeping Phil from being a true super star (as opposed to just the star he is currently) is his predictability when he has speed with the puck wide. He has always just used his wrist shot. Sure, he has a great wrist shot but when the goalie is expecting it from that position there is very little chance to score. Maybe on the rebound the forward driving the lane has a chance to get a good garbage goal but still.

    One thing Phil has added this past year is he holds onto the puck then makes a nice pass from the wing. That has helped turn him into a playmaker and not just a goalscorer which has opened up more options for the line which is great to see.

    But with his jets he needs to vary up his moves even more. Come over the blue line a bit slower sometimes. If the dman drops deep scared of his speed then it opens up time for him to make one of his nice passes. If the dman listens to the coach in his ear screaming gap control, grab that extra gear and burn him wide and then drive to the net hard. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have ever seen Phil do this.

    Phil is not a power forward by any definition so I don't expect this all the time. But it would be nice to see him add this to his arsenal once in a while just keep the dman guessing more.

    I suspect Phil will be more motivated by the playoff series last year than anything that happened in the Olympics. He showed much more true excitement and joy during that series than I have ever seen from him. I suspect we will see the best of Phil down the stretch because he really wants to be in the playoffs again.

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    1. It will be worth watching to see if Phil continues to evolve as a player. As you suggest, he is not the classic power forward, but he is an impact player. Few would forecast that he will become a top all-around winger (blocking shots, hitting, crashing the net, etc., in addition to his offensive ability) but he has upped his work ethic, it seems. Thanks Pep.

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    2. That is a very good point I missed on his work ethic. He is much more consistent in working hard away from the puck than he was just a few years ago. I think this has also helped his offensive game too as he gets the puck deeper and then can make plays/skate more often with the puck than he did before.

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  6. We have witnessed the metamorphosis of Phil Kessel from a near one dimensional sniper to a much more complete player. He has developed outstanding passing skills and has slowly become much more responsible defensively while maintaining his sniper skills. I don't think, due to his personality, that Kessel will ever be a classic leader. He is more of a lead by example type and his maturation as a player should be an example to young up and comers such as Kadri.

    If the Sochi Olympics taught us anything from a hockey standpoint it is that star players are capable of adapting to a system. The Canadian coaching staff demanded defensive responsibility and the result was a thing of beauty. The forwards back checked and fore checked tirelessly. The defensemen moved the puck crisply. Hardly anyone was ever out of position. I had that comfortable feeling, despite the closeness of some of the scores, that they would win each game.

    I hope that the blockheads that vote for the Norris trophy winner took note. Subban, while talented offensively, could not crack the Canadian top six defense because of his defensive deficiencies. Karlson, while a wonderful offensive talent was exposed in the defensive end numerous times during the Olympics. Canada showcased three of the top defensemen in the game in Weber, Doughty and Keith. All three should be the leading Norris candidates and each would be far more worthy of the trophy than the aforementioned past two winners. It is my fervent hope that the name Rielly will be included in this group not too long down the road. He has the ability to develop into an elite defenseman and bring the Leafs their first Norris trophy.

    In answer to your question I think that the type of leadership that Kessel brings to the Leafs is one of belief...belief that when they are behind that somehow he will find a way to score or set up a goal. That belief can foster a never say die attitude and go a long way towards propelling the leafs into the playoffs.


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  7. Well said regarding Weber, Doughty and Keith, Pete Cam. And I think your final comment is important: a team that believes it can has a much better shot at winning that one that doesn't. Thanks Pete.

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  8. I thought Kessel played very well. He was pretty much the only dangerous US forward in that game against Canada. And you can't knock being named top forward at the olympics.
    Come playoff time he is pretty much money in the bank. 22 games, 13 goals, 8 assists, +11.
    He is great and only getting better in my opinion.

    And I don't think we need to question his makeup or mental toughness...he did beat cancer after all. I think he has also figured out what he has to do in order to survive and thrive in this market.

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    1. At times in the past the Leafs acquired a top player but more toward the end of their career. In this instance, they have Kessel in his prime. Thanks for posting, apollo678

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  9. Andrew (@aharrington22)February 24, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    I don't think there is a player who I enjoy watching more than Phil Kessel. Am i biased, sure, but he has the second most amount of points over the last number of years than anyone. He's scored some big goals at convenient times for the hockey club, and the guy can fly. As far as being a leader, I guess there's a reason he doesn't wear a letter on his jersey. I would argue though, he's a leader in terms of scoring big goals for this hockey team but maybe not a leader in the dressing room because he just isn't a vocal guy. I do feel like everyone on the team respects the Hell out of Phil Kessel though. I truly feel Phil can lead us should we qualify for the playoffs. I still thought he played well in that semi-final game, he created some, but when you're up against that defensive core, the core who gave up 3 goals in 6 games against the world's best, I can give him a pass because he still made some plays. Time will tell, but Phil seems to be getting to the areas of the ice he needs to be successful. In Phil, I trust (even if I'm wrong).

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    1. I hear you, Andrew. No one is expressing any reservations about Phil today. I appreciate your input.

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  10. I think it might be nice to put the Olympics into perspective. Yes, Phil Kessel tied for the lead in points in a short tournament. Yes, there are some good players in the Olympics who did not get anywhere near his number of points. Yes, he is a fast player and the big ice benefits him more than some other types of players.

    However, he scored a hat trick against Slovenia, who won only one game in the entire tournament... against the team he scored another three points, Slovakia. Against the Russian's he had a second assist on a powerplay goal. Against the Czechs he had the fifth goal in a 5-2 game.

    Now certainly all of that is better than not putting up those points, but is it really worthy of him being named or even considered for top forward in the tournament? Probably not when you consider his last two games (I didn't see all of the Finnish game, but outside the first 10 minutes in the Canada game he was invisible).

    All of that just brings me to my point, which is Phil Kessel is a very specific type of player. He scores goals on rushes or when other teams make mistakes. He has one way of forcing a mistake: his speed. In a game where the opposition doesn't make their own mistakes (i.e. leaving him totally uncovered or poor gap control), he has a lot of difficulty doing anything. He doesn't tend to make his linemates "better" because he can't hold the puck in the offensive zone once his speed is taken away... so in response to your question: can Phil Kessel be clutch in the playoffs? Depends on who we play and if Carlyle can get him out against defencemen that are going to make their own mistakes or get burned on the rush.

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    1. Regular visitors to VLM know I welcome various points of view and yours today is a bit against against the grain. But I think you provide a fair and realistic perspective, Nick. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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  11. Hi Michael,

    I'm a big fan of Kessel, and I have been from the day he became a Leaf (at that time I was really high on Burke and his vision for the Leafs). He has overcome cancer and a serious (shoulder?) injury early in his career, and has since been a rock in terms of health and his availability to play, game in, game out. As you've stated before, his effort seems fairly consistent too, even if the results are "streaky."

    As for the Olympics, he tied for first in points and goals and was named the tournament's top forward (JVR tied for second in points and was first in assists overall, by the way). Sure, he didn't score in the last two (most important?) games, but who else scored against Canada's near-perfect team defence all tournament?! As for the next game, it didn't seem like the Americans were that interested in bronze, and, from what I've seen and heard, Kessel cares more about winning a Stanley Cup than even a gold medal. We could likely say the same about a great deal of NHL players, especially the North Americans.

    Kessel has improved year after year and broadened the scope of his game to include playmaking and back-checking, the former became apparent over the previous two seasons, and the latter has started to become clear this year. Statistically speaking, he's about to reach his peak age (he'll be 27 in October), so this season and next may be his best, in terms of points and goals. Yet some of the greatest NHLers became more "complete" players after their point-generating peaks; they were forced to change to be more defensively responsible, more dedicated to training, and play a variety of roles since they had lost some speed/hand-eye coordination/resiliance due to age and the grinding punishment of being relentlessly checked as a top player. So I think we can still expect more from Phil in terms of his skill set and for more critics to be silenced.

    He will be a leader in the playoffs--through his performance, not his words. Bolland, Lupul, Phaneuf, et al can do the speeches, as far as Kessel is concerned, I think. This young man expects a lot from himself--you can tell by the grim focus on his face in most games and his reserved reactions to his own goals, as compared to the enthusiasm he shows for line mates and teammates' successes--and I think we can expect some serious intensity from him down the stretch and into the playoffs as he attempts to prove a few things to himself and possibly to others.

    Now that Canada has proven itself unequivocally the world's top NHL hockey nation (winning three of the past four Olympic hockey tournaments stacked with NHL talent), it's time to bring the Cup back to a Canadian franchise. The Leafs actually may be the top contender out of the Canadian teams as long as "upgrades" over last year like Bolland, Clarkson can return to form, our goaltending keeps up the great work, Kessel and the guns keep firing, and everyone heeds the team-defence lesson so emphatically by Team Canada.

    Cheers,

    Matt

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    1. Hi Matt- I think your point about becoming a complete player is key. I used to write here about Kessel and say, "he is what he is". And that was pretty good. A player who was pretty much offensively-focused, but who played the same way most nights- with a lot of dash. The difference seemed to be, at least to me, that some nights the puck went in for he and his linemates; other times they were just missing, and people quickly made determinations about how "well" he was playing based on stats.

      Like you (and others who have written thoughtfully here) I have certainly noticed an improvement in his all-around gam over time. There are gaps some times to be sure, but the effort is generally there.

      Whether he will complete the metamorphosis a la Yzerman and Modano (who I have noted here before are examples of individual talents who really became complete players as they matured) I have no idea. But he is tracking nicely, so that when, as you say. his production may dip down the road, he could well compensate with other qualities to some degree.

      I will say this: leadership does matter (and yes, there are different kinds of "leadership") when assessing a star player, and so does making big plays at key times in the playoffs. So to an extent, the jury remains out. But I think the guy cares- and that may be the difference-maker. Thanks Matt.

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  12. I don't have the statistics to back this up but I do remember noticing, a few seasons ago that Kessel was only able to score against weaker goalies and defensemen. We all knew that he couldn't get around Chara for a long time. Last year, this changed and we could count on Phil to be dangerous every night against every team. He is a truly elite player with an unstoppable will to win (you can see it in Towes and Crosby - frustration with losing or not scoring, incredible compete level) and he just keeps getting better. He didn't score in that one game against Canada but I'm sure if he had an opportunity to try again in a best of 4 series he'd find a way. Another way to talk about the Olympics would be to compare Kessel's output to Kane's, Malkin's, Ovechkin's, Crosby's or Towes's. I really think Kessel will lead us to the Cup.

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    1. Goals were hard to come by for everyone as the Olympic tournament moved along, leafdreamer. As you said, Kessel certainly wasn't alone!

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