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Leaf emerging star Phil Kessel: oh, that release, a lot like...Mike Bossy?

If you’re familiar with Vintage Leaf Memories, you’ll know that I’ve posted quite often about Phil Kessel over the past couple of seasons.

The ever-worthy-of-debate trade with the Bruins (now more than two years ago...) is always a trigger for Kessel conversation, though some Leaf fans would prefer never to think about the deal (except when Phil is doing well, which is the case so far this season).  But it’s more than that.  He’s a guy that creates media attention and coverage because he has been, in his offensively productive and still emerging young career, something of an enigma.

He skates effortlessly.  He seems to get more scoring chances (even on his lousy nights) than most other players.  When the puck is going in for him, he’s a dangerous guy.

Heck, he’s dangerous even when the puck is not going in.

But he’s not always been a determined, hard-driving player, defensively conscientious performer—more someone who comes across as a player who has gotten by on, well, natural skill.

And, as I’ve posted often previously, there are some hoops he still has to get through, in my mind, before he becomes a bona fide superstar.  That includes seeing a consistent level of real effort in his game; regular, not sporadic production and  developing his all-around game all over the ice.

As importantly—and this may be the biggest challenge of all:  proving he can play when the light shines brightest, when the checking is stifling, when the games mean that much more—in the springtime, specifically down the stretch and in the playoffs.

If we are still hassling Joe Thornton, another ex-Bruin, (and he certainly showed me something again this past spring…) after all these years for not playing well enough under pressure or leading his team to a Cup, well, Phil hasn’t even had the opportunity to show what he can do in the spring.  We can set aside aside his first two years with a Bruin team when he was in the playoffs.  They weren’t a serious Cup contender and he was very young- not a guy Boston was counting on to lead the way.

So, at 24, the maturation of Phil Kessel is perhaps happening right in front of us, and importantly it is happening here in Toronto, for the blue and white.

All that said, the thing I wanted to focus on today is one thing, and essentially one thing only: that is, the guy’s uncanny ability to get rid of the puck so quickly, and with accuracy.

I’ve written in the past that Phil has a bit of former Leaf Mike Walton in him, largely because of Walton's flair and explosive speed.  Walton was a flashy offensive performer with the Leafs, the fastest guy on the team in the late '60s, with a booming shot.  (Check out the classic Harold Barkley photo of Walton and goalie Bruce Gamble at right.)  But in watching Kessel more and more of late, the guy that is coming to mind is former New York Islander sniper Mike Bossy.

Bossy was drafted by the Islanders as a 20 year-old in 1977, and proceeded to score more than 50 goals a season every year throughout the rest of his injury-abbreviated (astonishing numbers, really) career.  Only a back problem in his final season ended his run of consecutive 50-goal years and, sadly, also ended his amazing career with the four-time Cup winners from Long Island.

Now Bossy (left) was not drafted high, primarily because of his perceived defensive deficiencies coming out of the high-scoring Quebec junior league.  But on the Island, playing under a taskmaster and teacher in ex-Leaf defenseman Al Arbour, Bossy thrived.  It helped that he played with rock-hard center Bryan Trottier and rugged, steamrolling winger Clark Gillies.  Bossy, an OK skater, was able to focus on what he did so well:  finding the open seam—and releasing the puck more quickly than pretty much anyone else in the game in his era.

570 goals in about 750 regular-season NHL games will attest to his ability to “finish”, as we like to say.

No, he wasn’t tough or rugged, though he was tough in the sense that he was durable and played hard.  But he wasn’t the fastest thing on skates and didn’t have the world’s hardest shot.  But he could get rid of the puck so quickly, and with deadly accuracy, that he was—even in that high-scoring 1980s era when a lot of guys put up big numbers—a special performer, a guy that the other team always had to be aware of.  The stats he produced show that even when other teams “checked” him closely, he still was able to produce.  He was just that good, especially with those tremendous linemates.

So this is where Phil enters the “comparison” picture.  Until this season (and maybe still, in some people's estimation...) he has been considered a soft, one-way player. But he's young and still maturing.  He may - I stress may - become a more complete player some day.  The jury is still out on that.

He’s a better skater than Bossy, but like Bossy seems to be able to find those Brett Hull-like open spaces.  Throw in his ability to turn a pass around in seemingly less than a split second, and you have the makings of a good old-fashioned natural goal-scorer.

Add in the same ability that Bossy also had, which was passing the puck superbly (and I think Phil is under-rated in this regard, because we have tended to think of him as a bit of a selfish “shoot-first” guy), and you have a very productive offensive player.

This is not to say, as some are suggesting, that Phil will score 70 goals, or even 50, this season.  We’ve all seen that he is prone to extended periods of time when the puck is not going on, even when he is getting his chances.

But doesn’t this seem like a different kind of year?  A season where, while he may have some tough nights (thankfully, he doesn't play Boston every night), the “dry spells” might be shorter.  And while he’s not playing with Trottier and Gillies (both Hall-of-Famers), he’s done awfully well, thank you, with Lupul, and now Connolly.

There are other natural goal scorers in the NHL right now, for sure.  But does anyone get rid of the puck more quickly right now than Kessel?

Don't get me wrong.  Kessel has played well so far this season.  But I'm not calling him the best anything right now.  He needs to show me a lot more, over a much longer prior of time.  But he doesn't necessarily have to be "the best", eh?  He just needs to be the best Kessel he can be.

That should be enough to get the blue and white into the playoffs.  From there the bar only gets higher.


  1. Brett Hull also comes to mind...

  2. Every game I see Phil play, there are always one or two times when I'm amazed how fast he gets a shot off - and how hard the shots are. Gaborik has a similar ability, I'd say.