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Phil Kessel has more to give…

A few thoughts today on a player who has been a lightning rod since he arrived in Toronto before the 2009-’10 NHL season in a trade for the ages: that player would be, of course, the dynamic Maple Leaf winger, Phil Kessel.

I don’t need to go over his history with Boston, his relationship with Claude Julien, his return from a serious health scare at a very young age, or whether the Leafs or the Bruins will end up "winning" that deal.  (That’s all interesting to talk about or even debate, and I've certainly done it here, but it is also history.)  And we all know his reputation as a soft, one-way player—a reputation some would argue was well-deserved even through his first seasons in blue and white.

But what I am referring to today is simply this:  I think Kessel, for all his offensive stats and his seemingly “improved” defensive work at times, has even more to give the Leafs—and us as fans.  This is not a criticism.  In fact, it’s a compliment. 

For years I have said in this space that Kessel, essentially, “is what he is”.  That is to say, he is a speedy, sometimes electric but generally one-dimensional player. He can make plays, score goals, but, my thinking has been, he would likely never become an all-around player, he will never be that big-game guy.  Maybe most importantly, he would never be a leader, because, well, he just seemed to lack the passion that I associate with people that are inspirational players in this sport.

But all that said, I can’t help but feel that Kessel can, possibly, become more than simply “Phil the Thrill”.  Yes, he is in his prime in terms of offensive prowess.  He will never be faster than he is now.  Maybe he will never be more confident.

But what I feel I am noticing is that he is also comfortable (finally?) in his own skin in Toronto, and is becoming a player who may in fact be able to be a bit more than simply a point-producer here.  He already is our top player (arguably on any given day Lupul or Phaneuf could be in that discussion), but I’m suggesting his evolution—once thought to be someone stagnant—continues. (By the way, his two-goal effort Tuesday night against the Islanders is not the genesis of this post.  Kessel had been silent, production-wise, for a few games, which is entirely in keeping with his history- and also that of most NHL snipers. Whether he scores or not in a particular game has precious little to do with the subject matter I am covering today...)

I’ve often used names like Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano as examples of what I thought Phil would not become.  That is, they were also players who came into the league very young, and were offensively gifted.  But until certain coaches (read Scotty Bowman and Ken Hitchcock) got a hold of them, they were on a path to be really nice, skill players—but not necessarily anything more.

But as we know both of them morphed into complete NHLers and they both become indisputable leaders on championship squads.

That was the bar I spoke of here, the one I said Kessel would never reach.

I should weigh my words carefully here:  I do not know if Kessel’s ceiling is to be those kinds of players.  I really don’t.  But he is young enough that, if he really wants to become a leader, a Hall-of-Fame “difference-maker” type of player, that could happen. 

Neither Yzerman or Modano were physical players in classic terms.  They were skill guys who learned to play an all-around game all over the ice.  But they played the game with drive and determination and became hard to play against. They fought for ice.  They played their position well defensively. (Playing defense is mostly about awareness and hard work.  Any player that wants to be good defensively—I mean realty good—can be effective in this area.  They may not become Selke Trophy winners, but they take pride in that part of their game.)

But the biggest thing I feel we are seeing with Kessel these days is that the guy cares.  He has a passion for the game.  I’m not saying it wasn’t there before; maybe I just wasn’t seeing it.  But I’m seeing it now. Do you see how he reacts after a teammate scores a big goal?  It is reminiscent of Mats Sundin’s joy when the big Swede—who many also thought would never be a leader—would embrace a fellow Leaf after a big goal. Mats was seemingly happier for their success than he was for himself.

I remember penning pieces here in the past about Kessel not playing (injured? not willing?) for Team USA at the World Championships in the spring time.  It made me wonder how much he loved the game when he wasn’t in the mood, and therefore how much the Leafs could count on him if things ever really went south.  Could he be a player that, not only by talent but by sheer force of will could be “that guy” when the going got tough?

I still don’t know if we have our answer.  In fact, though he is in his 8th NHL season already, at the age of 26, he still has plenty of time to get better.  At some point his skills or speed will decline, but he has vision, hands, smarts. Those things last longer than the legs do.

If these other parts of his game are there, if he has the passion to lead or at least not just slide into the background when it matters most, he can be even better that the Kessel we see today—which is already pretty good.

We have noticed a bit more of an edge to his game this season.  Not a nastiness, mind you, but it’s almost as though he is beginning to be annoyed by the attention he gets on the ice, and is quietly fighting back—not always with his fists, but in terms of his demeanor and attitude.  This can be only a good thing for him, his career—and the team.

Does Kessel have even more to give?  Can he become a better, more complete player?  Can he become something of a leader?  Does he have the passion to compete when it matters most against the toughest opposition?  Now signed to a lucrative, long-term contact, can he ultimately help make this team a champion?

I don’t think any of us has the definitive answer to all of those questions.  No one does.  But I’m beginning to think my earlier assessments about Kessel’s career ceiling may have been off base.

Where do you stand?


  1. Michael,

    Love this post. Kessel does have more to give, and if he does find a way to give more to the team, fans and coaches. He could become the Leafs top player. Right now that man is the captain, Dion Phaneuf. Kessel has a really long way to go to become as complete a hockey player as Dion is right now. I admire a lot of things that Phil brings to the team, just not his play without the puck. Will he figure it out, I don't know, but I don't think so. He is what he is.

    1. I appreciate your input on this subject today, Jim. No question Phaneuf has become the player Leafs hoped to see when he first arrived- maybe even more. Can Kessel do the same?

  2. It's just amazing Michael how you always manage to come up with such interesting topics (and spins on them) for discussion as if not everything has been discussed and said about the Leafs.... Perhaps Phil's play of late has prompted you this time? - he has really been the difference maker lately, scoring timely and highlight-reel goals seemingly more than ever.

    To me, your question was answered in the affirmative when Kessel scored his first goal with Chara on the ice in the last year's playoffs. All of a sudden, he looked like he always looks against other teams, dangerous, confident and flying down the wings, next he started back-checking with some impressive results.... and the rest is history....

    Chara and the Bruins was one wall he couldn't climb. I think that, what Kessel realized in that moment, is that the long dark night that he and the Captain went through since they were brought into the perennially-losing, just plain horrible Leafs organization, was over and that now they get to fly and that now things are gonna get easier. They started winning and they've become contenders and I really don't think that they will ever let go of the rope. I think they will reach the peak and the main reason why that is is precisely because they had to walk through the desert and it made them strong.

    Losing is as important as winning, provided, of course, that the latter follows the former. The Captain and Phil were losing for a long time but they never became losers and that is why now they know how to win. I have no doubt that eventually, barring some horrible career-ending injuries, both will be recognized as greats.

    1. Your last paragraph is key, leafdreamer- well said. I think all Leaf supporters well recall Kessel's play against the Bruins in the playoffs and the memory is not bitter (except for the end result). Kessel showed something in that series, and now seems to be fully comfortable in his role here in Toronto. The Boston series helped get him to another level, I suspect.

  3. The thing I have noticed about Kessel this season is that his contract situation seems to have calmed him as well as motivated him. Any time you see a huge long-term deal, you fear the player will either become complacent or begin to succumb to the pressure of living up to said contract (see: McCabe, Bryan). All around, I have seen Kessel play more of a defensive game since he's arrived. He may not be the most skilled back checker, but he is there giving more effort than he is given credit for. In that aspect I do believe that age and experience will be his friend.

    Offensively I think he's absolutely already at his peak. Where he can be better is where he has already begun to show that he's better, in that he is playing a team game offensively. Take Bozak for what you will, you can't deny that he and Kessel have chemistry. Paired with other offensive talents such as van Riemsdyk or Lupul, and we have seen Kessel the playmaker much more, and thankfully we have seen less and less of Kessel the one-man show trying to do nothing more than cherry pick and rush around the edge from his own zone. Okay he still picks his spots and does that (that goal against the Devils was one of the most beautiful one-man rushes I've seen in a long time), but he no longer feels it's his only option and it has made him grow exponentially offensively.

    Where people need to accept Kessel to be "what he is" is that he will never be physical, in spite of him showing more feistiness this year. He can't be blamed for that, he never was and never really was expected to be. Burke didn't trade for him hoping he would replace Ponikarovsky or Antropov banging and cycling along the boards in the offensive zone, and he will never be that player.

    In the end, as his speed and sniping ability begin to decline toward the end of this eight year deal, I do envision Kessel using his experience to help him defensively, and continued refining of his playmaking abilities to round out his offensive game. That player would be just as valuable as the Kessel of today, and more valuable than the Kessel they acquired a few years ago.

    1. You hit the nail on the head today, Pete- I can't add a thing.

  4. For me Michael the most telling difference is the new commitment to defensive responsibility that takes a few years to learn. The biggest stat for Phil this year is that in addition to being a point-a-game player (21 in 21) he also leads the team in +/- at +5. Who would have thought that a few years ago?

    1. Hi Sean- I know some people don't put much stock in plus/minus numbers, but while imperfect, that stat still usually provides at least a bit of a glimpse as to a player's defensive accountability.

  5. Good question Michael and one that is not easily answered. I hearken back to the days of Frank Mahovlich to offer a parallel.

    When Frank debuted with the Leafs it was with the anticipation that he would be an elite NHL player. He certainly produced scoring and provided many thrills with his patented rushes and blazing shot however there was always the undercurrent that he could do much more. His easy skating motion even led some to claim he was lazy. His game developed to the point that he became a complete player and a Hall of Fame worthy star. Unfortunately Leaf fans were deprived of watching the finished product in the blue and white.

    We have witnessed a similar progression with Phil Kessel. When he came to us he was pretty much a pure sniper. Subsequently he has developed a fine passing game and also has worked on his defensive game. I believe that he will continue to morph into a well rounded player, sans, as Pete Davies pointed out, the physicality. So to answer your question; yes I believe that he has much more to give and thankfully we will be able to witness it happening while he is wearing a Leaf sweater.

    I find it interesting that Kessel's recent slump occurred just after Bozak's injury and Van Riemsdyk's move to centre.

    1. It's sometimes difficult to precisely pinpoint why certain players have "chemistry", but yes, Bozak and Kessel certainly seem to have it.

      You know I appreciate your reference to Mahovlich. He was almost elegance in action and had many of Phil's traits, as you allude to. Given Kessel's new long term-contract, Leaf fans will no doubt aim to see him in blue and white for a long time to come. Thanks Pete Cam.

  6. I think we've discussed Gil Perreault before. I see some comparisons to Kessel. Perreault was offense first, a quiet guy who lead by example on the ice, and to particularly concerned (or good at) defense. Didn't talk much (French was his natural language...don't think he spoke any English when he came into the league). But I remember the change in him by the time he became captain of the Sabres (in his 11th or 12th year with the team). By then he was killing penalties (Scotty Bowman influenced?), as well as playing the point on the power play. He had learned to use his skating and puck handling skill to defend. He played on decent teams, but not great teams (other then maybe the few years where the French Connection was in their prime). If he had been on the Canadiens in the 70s, we'd remember him like we do Lafleur. We can see Kessel backchecking more. Using his awesome playmaking abilities...and I agree...he's happier when his teammates score than when he does. His stocky, low center of gravity pose even reminds me of Perreault. It takes some players, even the best ones, many years to round out their game. And maturity also plays a big role in a well rounded game.

    1. I believe we have talked about Perreault here before and your thoughts on Kessel in this regard may be fair indeed. (By the way, Perreault remains one of my all-time favourite players, still maybe the most exciting player, in his prime, that I have seen. Such magnificent individual skill...)

      Absolutely agree, too, that it takes years for us to see a player in their prime, when it comes to the development of their overall game. Thanks JB.

  7. Hi Michael:

    When I first read this post, I thought that it looks like I need to defend Kessell again. This set me on a comparison of the records of Yzerman, Modano (your list) and what I remember as similar offensive players (Mahovlich, Lafleur). I also included Mike Bossy.

    Lo and behold, Modano and Kessell are almost identical on a per game average of goals and points. The others are ahead of Kessell's pace. Of the group, Bossy's record was the best.

    Thus, it is apparent that you are setting a high target for Kessell. While many fans including me, would be happy to have a gunner, it sounds that others are seeing a defensive improvement which may elevate him to an elite all-purpose player.

    1. Yes, I very much saw my piece on Kessel today as supportive of what he brings and what he can do in the future. I have set a high bar for him and that's probably a good thing. Thanks Ralph (RLMcC).