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Phil Kessel declines an invite: alarm bells or keep moving, no story here?

When the World Championships kick off in late April in Europe, the Maple Leafs will be well represented, with players who will be part of the national teams from not only Canada and the U.S. but Belarus, Sweden and Germany.

Every Leaf who was invited has, to my knowledge, accepted the honor of playing for their country, except one.

Which brings us to Phil Kessel.  The budding star winger (he of the three consecutive 30 goal seasons with a big salary and a price tag of a second overall choice in Seguin and what will be a 9th overall this summer to Boston) has declined, citing the usual “out”:  apparent fatigue, and the desire for a “break”.

Those of us who haven’t been in their shoes should no doubt tread lightly when judging the motivation and rationale regarding why under-pressure (if remarkably well compensated) professional athletes make the choices they do.  Kessel has certainly been in a pressure-cooker environment (in sporting terms) in Toronto the past two seasons, and has performed reasonably well, if somewhat inconsistently, in terms of production.

He is a young player with a lot of potential, it would seem.  On the one hand, as we have discussed in this space, he is what he is, as the expression goes: a very fast, skilled guy who can shoot and make some plays. He’s no physical presence but when he pays attention to detail, he doesn’t have to be a liability, though his plus/minus (minus 20 this season) figure seems to speak otherwise.

Whether he will ever morph into that complete, all-around player we often fantasize about, I don’t know.  Maybe he will.  Maybe he will always be what he is now—just older and wiser and a bit slower some day.

But the bigger issue for me rests beyond his decision to seemingly spurn the U.S world championship invitation.  In fairness, he has represented his country before, so he knows what he’s turning down.  (We know Burke, his boss, likes his players to take part in these big tournaments, but I have no idea if he tried to twist Kessel’s arm, or not, or if there is an injury issue.)

The question is:  Is the fatigue dodge legitimate, or this yet another reason to suspect Kessel will never quite be the determined hockey warrior the Leafs fans are desperately hoping will help lead the team from the hockey wilderness?   We know he is not Gary Roberts in terms of grit, leadership and attitude, but he is one of Toronto's very highly-paid  and very important ‘skill’ players. 

There are players who can play the game because of their superior natural talent and put up nice numbers years after year.  But they perhaps don’t have the requisite will to win, as it were, to accompany that talent and be the kind of player that gets you over the hump, or that you look to come playoff time—someone who rises the level of their game- and the play of those around them when it matters.

If I had to guess (we don’t actually have to guess…we all remember the Kessel/Wilson imbroglio that Burke shut down in a hurry earlier this past season) Kessel is still a test of Wilson’s will, not to mention patience,  as a coach.  This team, for its many improved qualities down the stretch, still gave up more goals than they scored overall by a fair bit, even with Reimer playing very well in the Leaf net from January 1 on.

Kessel may be seen as a coach-killer by some.  Claude Julien tried to work with him in Boston, but the Bruins (yes, money was an issue) were clearly prepared to move a very skilled young forward, a former 5th overall draft choice— despite having no guarantee they would be picking high last year in the draft with what they got from the Leafs.

This is not to impugn Kessel.  He may be a coach’s dream.  But after observing his game closely in his first two years in Toronto, it will be interesting to see (as he has a long-term contract and Wilson is about to have his own contract extended) how their relationship evolves.

And beyond that, the larger question is precisely what I was discussing a moment ago:  what kind of player will Kessel be in two or three years, when the Leafs, if we believe Wilson, should be competing for a Cup?  Will he be a guy the team can turn out to be at least one of the team leaders in the springtime?  If he doesn’t have the desire, at 23-24, to play a bit longer in the spring at the World Championships when half the NHL is prepared to lay it on the line for another two months, what does that mean—if anything?

It’s a long season, yes, but it’s also a long layoff for Leaf players between now and training camp in the middle of September.  That’s more than five full months.  Unless you’re hurt, really injured, that’s a long time to have to “rest”.

Your thoughts?  No concern here? Or a sign that yes, maybe the Leafs can win with Kessel, but they will have to look elsewhere on the roster for the grit, passion and leadership that they will need to win their first Cup in 45 years?



  1. It should be said that Kessel has participated in few tournaments in previous years and there are other NHL players who will not participate in the series this year. That said, I think Kessel should go because the leafs will make the playoffs and contend for stanley cup for years to come so this is his last in the forseeable future :-)

    I know he is not the greatest from media but this kids always leaves me wanting. He sort of reminds me of the guy that punches in 9-5 collects a pay check than heads off but actually resents his job. I'm sure it turns out he is a great guy though the little of his attitude we fans get to see leaves you scratching your head.

  2. From his Wikipedia entry:
    2004 - IIHF World U18 Championships
    2005 - World Junior Ice Hockey Championships
    2005 - IIHF World U18 Championships
    2006 - Cancer
    2006 - World Junior Ice Hockey Championships
    2006 - Men's World Ice Hockey Championships
    2007 - Men's World Ice Hockey Championships
    2008 - Men's World Ice Hockey Championships
    2009 - Shoulder Surgery
    2009 - Trade/Move to Toronto
    2010 - Winter Olympics

    To me, that reads as several summers abroad, a few Christmases away from family on top of the regular season grind of travel, a cancer scare and major surgery. Some personal time is well deserved in my opinion.

  3. I do believe the notion of a possible injury can be shelved. Phil was playing at his best and at full-speed at the tail end of the season. I simply think he's still a bit of a kid, let alone a American mid-western kid, and I think he's just going to find some private/family time to recharge this summer. I think the spotlight exhausts him more than say, Phaneuf or others. I'm the same way.

  4. As hoimin said, Kessel has been through a lot. I also wonder if the USA roster has anything to do with it, it's pretty terrible

  5. I'm ok with it. He's an awkwardly shy kid who is under immense pressure here in Toronto and I believe this rest is more mental than anything else. I think it's perfectly fine for him to want to reset back home. I doubt he'd learn anything new at the championships anyway. We tend to nitpick too much in Toronto and this is one nitpick I'd rather not support. I'm still your biggest fan though.

  6. I understand the different perspectives on this. I do indeed recognize that Kessel has participated many times for the U.S. in other competitions in the past, as I alluded to in the story. And people make a fair point that he presents as a shy guy and the Toronto microscope must be a difficult thing for him.
    As Chuck D. wrote (and thanks for your kind comment!) we do tend to "nitpick" in this market. But I thought his decision, especially in light of Burke's public comments that he really likes for his players to go to these competitions, was worth at least putting out there for debate.