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What I’ve liked about Phil Kessel’s game this season

I should be clear right up front.  I’m not providing an in-depth breakdown of Phil Kessel’s play today in all four (or is it six, or 8) zones of the ice.  Other sites can do that much better than I ever could.

I do appreciate the fact that the former Bruin is still maturing as a player, as we would expect, at the still very young age of 24.  And I certainly like that the winger is seemingly playing with more defensive awareness at times, while also using his linemates even better than before.  And now the guys actually wants to kill penalties, too.

That’s all good.

But set aside for the moment all that nice stuff and wins and losses, stats or the other qualities that he might have that help the team grab points in the standings.  My focus today is just on this:  I absolutely love watching the guy play right now.

Every night, even those evenings when Phil seems to be “off” (like Tuesday night against the 'Canes), or his mind just wanders a bit from the task at hand, I just have a feeling that we never know when he is going to make a rush, use that speed to make a play or break out in some fashion that will turn the game around in the Leafs’ favor.

There is no doubt that other guys have had their moments on offense and contributed to the cause, helping the Leafs get off to their first truly decent start in, well, years.  (Connolly, for example, was the difference-maker against Carolina.)  And certainly Lupul has had a major influence on Kessel’s performance.  I don’t think there is too much debate about that.

But Kessel, for me, is the entertainer, the guy who is pure fun to watch right now.  There are nights he just seems to have that puck on a string.  He can cut around a defenseman and whether he is successful or not, he creates anxiety on his side of the ice for the defender whose job it is to keep him on the outside—and off the score sheet.

More and more this season he also seems to be not restricting himself to just sticking to his wing.  He will float across the ice to his off-wing and make plays coming in on his off-side.  He has a particularly neat little move where he suddenly cuts across to the middle of the ice in the attacking zone at high speed from his off-wing.  He can therefore get a shot off from a great angle, still at top speed and often off his “wrong” foot which is doubly difficult for the goalie to handle.  Rebounds result—if not a goal.

We all know about his quick release.  If anything, he has that down now to a fine art.  Sure, defenders block his attempts on occasion, but as often as not, he gets a dangerous shot off.  (I’m sure someone keeps stats on these things, but I would love to know not just how many shots on goal he has—that stat is easily accessible and he has a ton—but how many shots he actually takes and how many miss but are oh-so-close to the target…)

I guess the bottom line is, he has become a truly dangerous presence on the ice, someone the opposition has to be aware of.  (Interestingly, not that long ago, I penned a piece wondering when was the last time the Leafs had a player the opposition had to really be afraid of…)  I’m well aware that things will get tougher as the season wears on, as teams do indeed focus more on Kessel and Lupul.  And if the Leafs were to make the playoffs, the checking will be that much tighter still.

But for now, I’m just enjoying the fact that he is a pleasure to watch.  He is an exciting player, not because of his big hits or his leadership or his toughness.  Simply because he has an eye-catching "don't want to miss a shift" style to watch, with speed, puck control, vision and the ability to make great plays at high speed.

He is at the top of his game right now, and someone who is worth being on hand at the ACC to see, or to turn on the television to watch on the small screen.

Either way, for me right now, he is the Leafs' “Mister Excitement”.


  1. The brilliant descriptions yesterday from Michael and Gerund about sitting in the Gardens certainly brought back memories of those days for me. I remember the Leafs versus Flyers games that Gerund describes, albeit not experienced firsthand, but in front of a grainy television set in Ottawa. Those Flyers teams could unleash rage in Leafs fans psyches, as I witnessed when my usually prim mom would unfurl a torment of vitriol that would make the bunny ears on top of the set curl back in fear. Not that she usually remained prim and proper during hockey games, because that was her time to let loose. What seemed like decades of incompetence in leaving our own zone used to set her blood to boil as well, usually resulting in a string of obscenities directed at the Leaf defensemens' passing abilities and management’s recruiting skills. But that Leaf-Flyer hate was something again, the passion so palpable. I will never forget Dave “The Hammer” Schultz’s tormented face, one night when he had to line up against Kurt Walker. Even in grainy black and white, Schultz’s face betrayed the anguish of a tortured soul set to meet his maker. In contrast, Walker had the air of a surgeon about to perform a heart transplant. What Leaf fan did not enjoy that spectacle? While there may be no realistic avenue to like Bobby Clarke, you had to admire his tenacity as a hockey player, that quality we are wondering if the current Leaf’s team possesses. Of course, I am talking about that extra something that may or may not be missing on the current squad, that “muckulent” quality that has preoccupied VLM for several days now. Normally, we see this quality in terms of individual leadership, the Bobby Clarke, Gary Roberts, Wayne Gretzky, and so on. But, what about team grit? I think we may have witnessed some of that last night, when one player, who we do not normally think of in those terms, takes the game by its horns. Of course, I am talking about Joffrey Lupul. Did anyone else see what I saw? Did anyone else see his performance elevate when the stakes were raised? This is what I saw: There was no way that Joffrey Lupul was going to drag the team down with a bad penalty if Joffrey Lupul had any say in it. Team grit, team muckulence, call it what you want. Here’s my question: Is it already there, not in the guise of a heroic individual, but as something amorphous and difficult to put your finger on – a team’s character?

  2. Really enjoyed your comment today Bobby C....Wonderful description of your mom and the emotion the Flyers brought out in all of us!

    They were so easy to hate, including of course those you cite by name. And Clarke was indeed the leader, a detestable sort but what an inspiration to his teammates with his never-say-die approach to the game.

    And with regard to our current Leaf squad, I like your point about Lupul. I think he may well be the guy who has to lead the way when things look bleak some nights. Connolly produced the goals and you can't win without that, but Lupul provides something that enables the goals and comebacks to happen. Well said.