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Yzerman, Modano and now Kovalchuk: is there hope for Phil Kessel??

One of the most fascinating examples of an athletic metamorphosis over the past few seasons has been that of none other than the uber-talented winger Ilya Kovalchuk.

As I acknowledged in posts over the past few days, I have always been a “Kovy” fan because of his extreme skill level and eye-popping highlight-reel goal capabilities from his earliest days as a Thrasher.  (There was also a bit of an emotional connection because he was my youngest son’s first “favorite” hockey player…)  But I was absolutely of the view that Lou Lamoriello had 'lost it' in not only acquiring Kovalchuk in the first place but then re-signing him to what I thought was a ridiculously lengthy and costly free-agent contract the following summer.

As I said yesterday, I appear to have been badly mistaken about Lamoriello and Kovalchuk—though my  basic view on these excessive long-term contracts has not really shifted.

But perhaps the real “story” in all this is that Kovalchuk has seemingly become one of those hockey players that has indeed matured to prove, once again, that “less is more”.  That is, by focusing less on his extraordinary and natural offensive goal-scoring skills and accepting the importance of two-way play, he has morphed into the kind of player a really good team can actually depend on at this time of the year—when gritty hockey matters possibly even more than goal-scoring.

His apparent evolution got me thinking again about two names I’ve often cited here in the past—Steve Yzerman in Detroit and Mike Modano in Minnesota/Dallas.  Both of these then young forwards (Yzerman in the mid-‘80s and Modano in the early ‘90s) were magnificent offensive players.  Yzerman was not terrible defensively, but it wasn’t until Scotty Bowman came to Detroit (and almost traded the Red Wing captain to Ottawa) that Yzerman really found his way fully as a brilliant performer at both ends of the ice.

For Modano, his transformation occurred under another intense task-master, Ken Hitchcock.  Modano won a Cup with Hitchcock in Dallas, just as Yzerman helped the Wings to capture a number of championships in the Motor City.  They were ably supported by a host of driven, determined teammates, of course, but I focus on these two guys as fairly recent high-profile examples (there are others, of course) of players who, over time, embraced a lesser offensive role (and less statistical  “glory” at times) for the good of their respective teams.

This brings me to a current situation with the Maple Leafs.  If Yzerman, Modano (both Hall-of-Fame talents) and now even Kovalchuk, of all people (who would have forecast this?) can “change” and become complete players...what, if anything, does this mean for the Leafs and their expectations for—and around—Phil Kessel?

With six NHL seasons behind him already, and some impressive goal-scoring numbers as well, Kessel doesn’t turn 25 until the 2012-’13 season gets underway in October.  We all know the Leafs have their own high-end taskmaster on board behind the bench now in none other than Randy Carlyle—who happens to have a Stanley Cup on his coaching resume with the Anaheim Ducks, so he knows what it takes to win in the spring.

And herein lies the interesting—and somewhat pressing—question for the Maple Leafs:  what are the true, honest expectations of the somewhat enigmatic young winger?  Are they—as a coaching staff and as an organization—satisfied with him as primarily a tremendously fast, skilled forward with that quick release, a guy who can put up between 30 and 40 goals a season seemingly without breaking a sweat?  (And how many more, if he cashed in on even a small percentage of the overall chances generated by his speed and moves..?)

Is that enough for them?  Or are they hoping for (or at some point, will be insisting on…) more from Kessel?  Will they expect and/or demand greater accountability at both ends of the ice?

This applies as well to his 2011-’12 linemate, Joffrey Lupul, but I cite Kessel today because, in many ways, he has been the centerpiece of the Burke regime and the Leaf GM’s much-scrutinized “re-build” on the fly. 

Kessel is younger, faster, and even more talented, as best I can determine, than Lupul (who gave us way more than we ever dreamed this past season).  And to a certain extent, Kessel is the offensive lynchpin, the catalyst around whom the Leaf offense revolves.

The coming season will likely be a telling one for Kessel—and for his relationship with Carlyle and the entire organization.  All the “right” words were uttered at the end of this past season.  Carlyle sounded very supportive of Kessel, but what would we expect (especially after Carlyle's relationship with Lupul had deteriorated badly in Anaheim…)?

I guess the longer-term question I have for you is this:  are you, as a Leaf fan, happy with Kessel as he is right now?  Or do you want - or expect -  more?

Further, do you see him as someone who will evolve like the aforementioned Yzerman, Modano and (surprisingly) Kovalchuk and become, if not necessarily a “leader”, a more complete NHL’er?

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts….


  1. In my humble opinion no. Kessel is a fine player, a fact I have stated many times but for some reason I just don't sense the passion in the guy that an Yzerman or now a Kovalchuk had or haves.

    I've never met the guy so I could be wrong but he seems like a guy who goes out and scores 2-3 points and considers it a succes no matted what the team result is. He just doesn't strike me as a guy who is going to go the extra mile. I thought he was getting better this year but at the end of the season he was still Kessel, a wizard at offense, not much interested in anything else even under Carlyle.

  2. And I think this is what a lot of Leaf followers are still wondering, Willbur. We see the elite skill but wonder if he will ever go to (to borrow that over-used expression) that "next level".

  3. Kessel marches to his own drummer.

    The most I could see out of Kessel is that he starts using that elite speed and stick in a defensive role. I don't think we will see him play like Yzerman.

    However, the thought of Kessel back-checking and stealing pucks from slower guys and heading the other way to score goals is a very entertaining idea.

    If he prevented 10 extra goals per year and scored 5 more goals on those take-aways...I'd be quite happy.

  4. Hi. I have followed your site for a few months now. I love your well thought out, in depth articles of various topics and passion for the Leafs. I think in defense of kessel he showed for the first 10 or so games last year a more complete game from him. Driving to the dirty areas in front of the net and consistency in back checking. It went hand in hand with the good goaltending we were getting. We can should expect he CAN deliver the same come playoff time given a chance. But it is not fair to think he cannot until he doesn't. That is during playoff time. Two things that Yzerman and Modano had going.for them was secondary scoring support in Federov and Niewendyk. This took the pressure off them. As I think the MVP of the Devils this year is Praise not Kolvi. Kolvi is the game breaker that Kessel is for the Leafs. Lemieux had jagr and Francis. Richards had Lecavalier and St. Louis. The Leafs need to build with Kessel a stronger more competative lineup up and down the roster. That will make Kessel more dangerous. The other thing is great goal tending. It is as vital as a good quarterback is to football and pitching is to baseball. Lundquist and Miller and even the reborn Brodeur give their teams a chance to be successful. Lupol was a pleasant surprise but we can only judge whether kessel has what it takes to take his game to next level if we can put him in a position with supporting players who can give him an opportunity take that next step. Unfortunately for Kessel he will always be compared to the players he was trades for as was sundin with wendle clark. I think we need to realize many player like Claude Lemieux and Glen Anderson seemed to excel when the pressure was the most. They were able to play better than the others when it counted most. Kessel provides the game breaking ability that we need. All we need is the players to build around.him. certainly he has showed glimpses of a complete game that we will need from him going forward

  5. Kessel definitely marches, as you say DP, to his own drummer.

    I guess as much as we tend to say Kessel "is what he is", when I see Kovalchuk, for example, playing a different game, it makes me wonder if almost anyone can be nudged to become a more complete player...

    We'll see!

  6. Great post, bluenwhite. (And thanks for the kind words.)

    The jury is indeed out on what Kessel might become. We know what he "is" now and what he brings to the table many nights. What he is capable of is what we will see unfold.

    All of the points you raise are valid. Yzerman and Modano had extraordinary support. Lemieux indeed had Jag and Ronnie Francis. Goaltending makes a huge difference, too, as you mention.

    I love your point on Glenn Anderson and Claude Lemieux. There are players - some are stars and some are not considered stars - who are able to rise to the occasion, and play even better in the playoffs. Those two guys were a good examples. (We're seeing a few players like that this spring, too...)

    It's true, Phil showed glimpses early last season of being a more all-around player. Where he goes from here will indeed depend on what they surround him with- and what he is prepared to do.

  7. The difference, as I see it with Kessel, is that it is hard to imagine him not disappearing in the playoffs. I may be wrong, but he seems to be the type to bow to adversity rather than overcome it. If it were otherwise he wouldn't be so invisible every time they head to Boston.
    I may be wrong, but I can't see him playing through guys the way that you have to in order to enjoy success in the post season.
    Just my opinion of course, hope that I am wrong.
    Also hope they manage to get in the playoffs before he retires or we may never find out the answer to this one.

  8. cbh747...I admit I've had the same concerns about Phil. Super-talented. Just not sure we have seen the extra spark that you need at this time of year.

    Now, as bluenwhite said above, maybe if we can surround him with more, it will make a difference. And in fairness, we must acknowledge that he hasn't had the opportunity to shine in the spring with the Leafs.

    I think most of us would agree that the jury is out: we'll need to see how he actually performs under the Toronto playoff glare. Until then, we're all guessing.

    Good stuff. Thanks cbh747.

  9. I expect more from Kessel, only because as you say, he is supposed to be "the piece" Toronto is building around. If he wasn't the focal point, like Semin in Washington for example, I would agree he is what he is. That being said, I don't expect Kessel to be crushing anyone along the boards, but how hard is it to use your blazing speed to backcheck and steal a puck. The question for me is not the defense of Phil Kessel, but does he have the "guts" to take a hit in order to score a goal. Does he have the moxie to play in high traffic when checking gets tighter. Can he play like Parise, not Kovalchuk when the game is on the line.

  10. Are we asking too much of him?

    He's 7th in goals, 6th in points.

    He plays, against the opposing top scoring line or the top defensive lines, with an undrafted center and a player who was considered a "salary dump".

    Not to mention that he's been coached by Ron Wilson for the past 3 years..

  11. You point is fair, Anon, with regard to not expecting Kessel to be a guy who hits and is gritty, necessarily, along the boards. As you stress, the key will be his willingness to fight through the tough areas to score at playoff time. He may not have a ton of opportunities to score from the perimeter given how the game is played in the playoffs.

  12. That's a fair question as well, Chuck.

    I guess we're all asking questions- can he evolve? Does he need to? Is it fair to expect him to play a game that he is seemingly not comfortable with? If other players can do it (e.g. Kovalchuk, the ultimate one-way forward through much of his career...) can Kessel?

    Lots of questions. We'll have to wait for the answers.

  13. As much as I respect Kessel's production. I don't believe he fits in here, in the meca.
    Even if he learns the defensive side of hockey. Put him in the trade for Nash, and we won't have to give up to much of the future. (bring in Jordazn Stall to center Nash and Lupol.)

  14. I believe the Leafs are still in on Nash...or at least want to be.

    As we've discussed here before, Staal would be great, but a lot of teams would love to have him!

    Thanks Anon.