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The Kessel-Wilson relationship

I’m sure that, if they even remotely care or bother to read what the media has to say, coaches spend zero time worrying about what those media reports suggest—at least in most cases.

I’m specifically thinking about those occasions when reporters write stories and speculate about what’s going on inside the dressing room— when they really have little or no clue.

So I can safely assume that coaches care even less about what the hundreds of hockey bloggers, who aren’t in contact with the players, have to say about anything.

Nonetheless, acknowledging that I’m not on the “inside”, I can’t help but sit back and wonder how the Wilson-Kessel relationship will develop in the years to come. Again, I have no inside knowledge, as most of us don’t.  They may well get along splendidly on and off the ice.

I first raised this potential issue last season.  I wouldn’t say Kessel was a coach-killer in Boston.  That wouldn’t be fair and I have no clue how he got along with the coaches there. But it seemed clear by the end of his time there that he and Claude Julien were on different planets with regard to how he needed to play.  He came to the Leafs as a budding offensive star, ready to break out and seemingly happy to be free of Julien’s obsession with defensive hockey.

Truth be told the coach in Toronto, Wilson, was little different in terms of philosophy from Julien, as best most of us mere outsiders could determine.  Both stressed team defense (what coach doesn’t nowadays) and individual responsibility (again, what coach doesn’t).

The difference was simple:  The Bruins were a lot closer to being a contender of sorts in the “anyone might win it this year” Eastern Conference.  The Leafs, last season, were not.  So Kessel was given plenty of latitude to play as he wanted, with his natural offensive bent.  I’m not suggesting Wilson did not ask him to play in his own end, just that I doubted that he would ever publicly identify Kessel as a problem in any way in his first season.  Kessel was Burke’s guy, and besides, nothing was going on last season for the Leafs anyway.  Kessel could score, and they certainly needed a boost in that regard, especially since the team was being dismantled

Fast forward to this season.  Like most players, Kessel has nights where he floats a bit, doesn’t have that drive to play hard all night all over the ice.  So very early in the season, you will remember that Wilson sat young Phil for the better part of the night.  I’m trying to remember where they were, but as I recall it was on the road.  The Leafs were playing well and winning.

Then, this past Monday, Phil again spent  time cooling his heels while other guys jumped out in his place.  His error?  He was among those lax in their back-checking effort on the one goal scored by the Stars.  (Kadri was also, but as I posted recently, now is not the time to lay the public hammer down on Kadri.  He is the guy they called up in desperation when the team couldn’t score goals.  To send him back to the Marlies would be damaging in many ways, so they generally have to boost him publicly now.  There’s no going back.)

So Kessel took the blame and earned another rest.  Did it help to motivate him?  Well, Kessel led the forwards in ice time and shots on goal and also scored late in the 3-1 loss in Buffalo on Friday night.  Who knows what effect, if any, the benching will have on Kessel, long-term.  The last time he bounded back and played well.  He was a threat again last night.  (Turnovers and special teams were the story last night for the team, not the play of one guy.)

In any event, I am among those who applauded Wilson for sending the right message early in the season when Kessel was not putting out.  Hey, who on this team is so good that he has earned the right to take a night off, without reprisal of some sort? 

Lots of players around the league are benched temporarily when they are having an off night.  That said, I can’t help but wonder where the Kessel-Wilson relationship goes from here.  Wilson will not be easy-going when this team gets good.  He will be exacting—and demanding.  Some good players don’t like that approach.  They like to, like Kovalchuk, play a more offensive game, take chances, play to their strengths. 

Everyone talks publicly about being a team-first guy, but in truth, a lot of guys want to score goals.  It helps the stats, and that’s how the big money is earned in arbitration and free agency.

Kovalchuk went through a few coaches in Atlanta, and may do the same in Jersey before he’s through.

I’m not saying Kessel is like Kovalchuk.  Only that it will be interesting, as the pressure rises in Toronto, the team gets better and the expectations soar on a parallel track, whether Kessel and Wilson will always co-exist in full harmony.

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