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Phil Kessel: modern-day Yvan Cournoyer, but missing the toughness

Leaf fans have had plenty of time to assess Phil Kessel over the past fifteen or so months.  He missed some time due to injury in his first season with the club, but we have a pretty good idea how he plays by now.

At 23, he is far from a finished product, and if he morphs into a Modano/Yzerman type, a more complete player, that is, then we have something to look forward to, if his future is with the Leafs.

His flaws are evident, but he has plenty of time to make himself a better all-around player- if he wants to.

To me, he reminds a bit of a guy I grew up watching—and hating—Montreal’s Yvan Cournoyer.

Cournoyer (pictured at right in action at the old Forum against Roger Crozier in goal, Marcel Pronovost and the Red Wings) came up to play for coach “Toe” Blake and the Habs at 21, a delayed “replacement” for Maurice (the “Rocket”) Richard, the legendary Hab goal-scoring great.  Billy Hicke, a fine player in his own right, was to be the heir apparent when Richard retired in the fall of 1960, but no one could replace Richard. Hicke had some good years with Montreal but was eventually traded in 1965 for ex-Leaf Dickie Duff.

The Habs went through a period in the early ‘60s where they didn’t have enough toughness.  John Ferguson took care of that.  And they were missing that explosive winger who could fly and score a lot, and that turned out to be Cournoyer.

Cournoyer, a brilliant offensive performer as a junior, was considered a defensive liability in his early days with the big club.  So Blake used him primarily as a power-play specialist, which was uncommon in those days—one guy whose role was to play on that unit almost exclusively.

Cournoyer was a small guy at 5 feet 7 inches and maybe 175 or 180 pounds— and explosively fast, one of the fastest guys in hockey in the 1960s. But he was not just fast.  He was very strong, both upper and lower body—especially his lower body.  The guy could break around defensemen off the wing, would go to the front of the net, and his speed created all kinds of breakaway opportunities off good headman passes from Montreal’s talented blueliners.  And unlike someone like Dave Keon, the splendid Maple Leaf speedster who made the NHL a few years before Cournoyer, Yvan rarely missed on breakaways.  He usually shot rather than deked, and he inevitably found a hole in the goalie somewhere.

Where he was different from Kessel, who also has outstanding speed, good hands and a quick release, is that he not only drove to the net more regularly, but he seemed to love body contact.  Cournoyer (pictured at left with the Montreal Junior Canadiens; he wore #12 with the big club) could get hammered and he’d get right back up.  He’d get nailed into the boards and just keep going.  I don’t know if you could describe him as a classic “physical” player, but he had no problem accepting punishment and playing through it. (In that way he was like Johnny McKenzie, who played with different teams in the '60s but rose to prominence with the Bruins in the late '60s and early '70s.)

It’s a big part of what made him such an impactful player and more than just a “goal-scorer”.  How good was the speedster they called "The Roadrunner"?  Well, he won 8 Cups with some very strong Montreal teams, and was hurt before he could help them win a 9th in 1979.  He was surrounded and supported by outstanding teammates, but he was a big part of why Montreal was so successul.  He was more than "just" a good goal scorer.

That’s where Kessel has to get to, some day, if he wants to become— and be recognized— as a more complete, all-around player.  Become more than a goal scorer so that, when the goals are not going in, you’re still making a valuable contribution and showing your teammates you’re in every game.

A three-game western road swing would be a good time to take that next step.

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