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Too much angst about Kessel: for now, he is what he is

I may be way off base, but I can’t help but wonder if “The Monster” was thinking Thursday night about the fact that his run as the “number one” guy was coming to an end.  The Leafs were making noises that Giguere would not only be back but starting Saturday night.  Wouldn’t you know it, Gustavsson struggles a bit for the first time since Giggy went down and Wilson pulls the plug after only two goals.

I’m probably wrong, but it just seems to me that Gustavsson was looking over his shoulder.  The good news is he played very well throughout Giggy's absence.

Leaf fans could only sit back Thursday night and sigh, and well, dream of what might have been— or some day could be.

This is not to canonize the Oilers or their management “blueprint”.  Except for that tremendous run to the finals a few years back, the Oilers have been a largely  disappointing franchise, in a great hockey city, for many years.  But as has always been the case, and as teams like Pittsburgh discovered in the ‘80s (see Mario Lemieux) and more recently those same Penguins (Crosby, Malkin, etc.) and of course Washington (Ovechkin and others), bottoming out for several years in a row has its draft-day benefits.

The Oilers had the first overall choice this past June and, as fans know, took Taylor Hall.  But their more impressive selections were in drafting Magnus Pajaarvi and former junior team standout Jordan Eberle over the previous couple of drafts.  (They also have Linus Omark ready to join the big club, after a recent five-goal game in the AHL.)  Pajaarvi played in the Swedish Elite League last season, while Eberle played a fair bit in the AHL last spring after his junior season was over. 

They all hit the ground running this season and brought some energy and passion to a group that had shown little of either attribute on a consistent basis the last few seasons.

The Oilers have had some early rough patches and coach Tom Renney was very public about his dismay after a recent loss.  But they have gotten some results lately, and the future is, one would have to say, bright in Edmonton.

The Oilers were a poor hockey team last season, badly constructed without size, leadership or much NHL elite skill.  Now, with a healthy Khabibulin, the sudden infusion of elite talent (the three guys I mentioned above all 21 and younger), this is a very different team.

I posted a few months ago, asking fans whose future looked brighter, the Leafs or the Oilers?  For one night, the answer would seem to support the latter.


From the day Phil Kessel arrived, it’s been a case of “this is tremendous…” followed by “oh damn….”

Why?  Well, every living breathing Maple Leaf fan was excited to get a not-even-in-his-prime star in the making.  A 21 year-old who can skate, shoot and score goals.  An honest-to-goodness offensive threat, a difference-maker.

The problem?  Well, he cost us what turned out to be Tyler Seguin, even younger and perhaps just as (or more?) skilled.  Not to mention another young player, who may or may not become a player in the NHL some day.

So here is how this currently plays out.  When Kessel snaps that quick shot and it goes in the net and the good guys win on occasion, Leaf fans are generally happy.  It feels like a good deal ‘cause, hey, we got a guy who’s still only 23, fun to watch and can score goals in a hurry. (And, we think, maybe Seguin won’t turn out as good as everyone says…)

Now, when the shots don’t go in, things don’t feel so good.  We start to focus on the other aspects of Kessel’s game (the parts that, as I’ve posted in the past, drove Claude Julien around the bend).  That is, his occasional floating, his unwillingness to get dirty in the corners or in front of the net.  His being, in short, the classic skilled ‘perimeter’ player.

When the shots don’t go in, the trade feels rather, well, unsatisfying.  Fans worry that Seguin will indeed be the real deal and are reminded that  another draft ‘shoe’ will drop this coming June.

This all brings to mind when Mo Pete, Morris Peterson, played with the NBA Toronto Raptors.  I’m not comparing Kessel and Peterson in terms of skill level.  Kessel is the more skilled performer with a higher threshold at the pro level.  But it used to be amusing to hear the Toronto media say that Mo Pete had a great game when he scored 18 points or 22 points, whatever, and comment on his poor play when he ended up with say, six points in a  given game.

To me, the guy played the same way pretty much every night.  The only difference was, some nights his shots went in more often, other nights they didn’t.  When the shots went in, his point totals were higher, of course, and everyone was happy.  But to me, he was the same guy, the same player, he played the same way he usually did.  He was just a bit more, or less, lucky.

And this is where I am with Kessel right now. He is, for now, what he is.

He is a streaky goal scorer, hot and cold, it seems, like a lot of players.  He is an explosive skater, has that quick snap/wrist shot.  I’m not describing anything readers don’t already see for themselves.  He can be exciting to watch when he makes one of his dashes, a pretty pass or a nice move.

But he rarely goes to the dirty areas and is not the best defensive forward on the team, also not a news alert.

So, is this what we are destined to have with Phil, forever?

Not necessarily.  Let’s think back, not too long back, to guys like Yzerman, like Modano, like Lecavalier.  Now, they were centers, but it’s the same deal.  When they came into the league, they were gifted offensive players.  When did they become champions?  Well, when they had a really strong supporting cast around them, for sure. But it was also when they matured, grew up, become more all-around, complete players who worked hard all over the ice.  They weren’t perfect, but they kept getting better as the years went on and yes, that “compete level” that we all like to talk about was almost always there.

Scotty Bowman seems to get credit for making Yzerman a more complete player.  Hitchcock seemed to do the same for Modano.  Tortorella pushed Lecavalier to be better than he was in his early days.

For me, Lecavalier turned the corner the year Tampa won the Cup.  I remember him taking a shot in the chops just to make a play, a real vicious hit.  But he made the play, and if I’m not mistaken, his pass set up a goal in a key playoff game on the way to winning a Cup.

That’s the kind of player you have to become if you want to be in that truly elite category in the best league in the world.  It’s that area where relatively few guys get to, because it requires more than just your natural skill set, the talent you already have.  It seems to require a motivation to work even harder, to be willing and able to endure a lot of physical pain, to do things when your body and mind are telling you it’s not worth the effort.

Will Kessel ever reach that level?  I have no idea.  It took each of the guys I mentioned above a number of years to get there.  If he ever does, then Leaf fans will care much less about what Tyler Seguin or this upcoming traded draft pick does.  They’ll be thrilled to have Kessel on their team.

If not, then people will compare-away, for years to come.  And we’ll have this same conversation (just like we did in the middle part of last season) whenever Kessel hits a scoring drought, and the rest of his game doesn’t quite measure up.

Patience, we need patience.  He still may "get it" someday.

As for the Leafs overall, a win over Boston, a good team that doesn't give up much, would make people feel a lwhole ot better.


  1. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 3, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    I agree with your your assessment on Kessel, however, I doubt that Leafs fans would be patient with him. Think Frank Mahovlich, Mike Pelyk, Bob Neely, Laurie Boschman, Jim Benning just to name a few. Leaf fans love to eat their young when they do not meet their expectation.

  2. Agreed that patience in Leafland is hard to find. Putting the onus on really young players has never made sense. It happens in other markets too...Cam Neely, Joe Thornton, both situations where teams lost patience and gave them up for relatively little. In addition to the names you mentioned, I seem to recall that Leaf fans were on the cusp of giving up on Lanny McDonald until his confidence grew in his third season. I've written about Neely in the past. He should have been brought along more slowly, in retrospect. And the Imlach build-up of Benning (Orr comparisons) was unfair and with the hype bar set so high, the fans were far too impatient. He had talent, a bit like Kaberle. I think Ballard hurt Boschman's development. Thanks for your comments.