By The Numbers: Phil Kessel

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    Ever since the Leafs’ late-offseason acquisition of Phil Kessel, his performance has been (understandably) heavily-scrutinized in the face of the hefty amount of futures given up to secure the extremely talented winger.

    Kessel’s season has, in some ways, mirrored that of his teammates, with periods of great productivity followed by periods of near-invisibility. However, considering a host of issues which seemingly stood in the way of a productive season, including significant shoulder surgery, causing him to miss out on training camp, and the lack of talent surrounding him, the Leafs’ young sniper has produced at a rate which, in the context of the aforementioned factors, is actually quite impressive.

    Phil Kessel, season-by-season
    Offensive statistics by season + projected 82-game results

    Season Team Season Stats Projected Full Season
    GP – G – A – Pts – PP – Shts GP – G – A – Pts – PP – Shts
    2006-07 Bos 70 – 11 – 18 – 29 – 1 – 170 82 – 13 – 21 – 44 – 1 – 199
    2007-08 Bos 82 – 19 – 18 – 37 – 5 – 213 82 – 19 – 18 – 37 – 5 – 213
    2008-09 Bos 70 – 36 – 24 – 60 – 8 – 232 82 – 42 – 28 – 70 – 9 – 249
    2009-10 * Tor 49 – 21 – 20 – 41 – 6 – 214 82 – 35 – 33 – 68 – 10 – 358

    * Projected 2009-10: 70 GP, 30 G, 28 A, 58 Pts, 8 PPG, 305 Shots

    Analysis:

    As you can see, the numbers project to be quite strong for Kessel this season. Assuming he plays every game the rest of the way, at his current pace he will hit the 30 goal mark, which is impressive for a first-line player who missed roughly 1/7 of the season with injury.  Over 82 games at that pace, Kessel’s production projects to a strong 35 goals which – although slightly less than hoped for from a star player – is noteworthy considering (a) the impact of the time missed and (b) the talent surrounding him in Toronto.

    The Injury

    Although the shoulder surgery Kessel underwent in the offseason has not directly factored into his production this year, the ramifications of the time missed certainly have.  Namely, an entire training camp was missed during his recovery, and it was not until the couple weeks leading into the Olympic Break that Kessel truly appeared to have found his stride.  This is not to say that he was not in shape; rather, there is a difference between being in “game shape” and being in (what I call) “game-after-game” shape.  That is, having the strength and stamina to perform at the highest level over periods of 4 games in 5 or 6 days, with very little practice or workout time in between.

    There have been numerous examples of players returning midway through the season, who have suffered from this effect and not regained their full form until late in the season.  Scott Neidermayer’s return to action with the Ducks in 2008 after considering retirement, comes to mind.  Not to mention the inconsistencies of some other fellow who used to wear #13 in Toronto, when he came out of retirement for a playoff run with the Canucks.

    Kessel’s Linemates

    Before I jump into this one, let me get something out of the way up front: I am not making an argument that more talented playmaker at centre would result in more goals for Phil Kessel.   Gus Katsaros already covered that one for us a while ago, and I fully agree with him that the Marc Savard factor had far less an impact on Kessel’s overall production than many realized.  That said, the talent surrounding Kessel still is a factor in terms of his production, albeit from a slightly different perspective than simply how talented a playmaker his centreman happens to be.

    You may recall that in Kessel’s first 15 games as a member of the Maple Leafs, he scored 10 goals and added 5 assists in his first 15 games.  Following that torrid start, he fell into a slump which saw him net only 4 goals and 3 assists in his next 18 games. While a part of this lack of production was conditioning catching up to him (as discussed above), another factor was the way in which opposition teams were defending him.   Simply, teams began shifting coverage toward Kessel, often shadowing him with an extra man, as they clearly did not respect the abilities of his linemates to make them pay for it.

    Again, this is not an argument that a more gifted playmaker would create more opportunities for Kessel.  Far from it.  Rather, it is an argument toward style of play. Anybody on the team can get the puck to the open man.  That’s the easy part.  The question is, what happens after that?   Once Kessel has the puck, are his teammates driving the net?  Are they skating into the danger areas? Are they forcing the opposition to cover them, or are they simply hanging around the perimeter, waiting for Kessel to do something on his own?

    It is relevant to note that over his last 16 games, Kessel was again on a tear, recording 19 points (7 goals and 12 assists) during that span.  What was the difference between those 16 torrid games and the 18 relatively unproductive ones which preceded them?

    Again, a part of it is conditioning, slowly working into “game-after-game” shape to the point where 4 games in 6 nights is no longer taxing Kessel’s body the way it was earlier.  But that is not the entire story. Those who have been watching the games closely will have also noticed something else different: the amount of open ice Kessel has had at his disposal.

    Is it any coincidence that Kessel’s recent 16-game tear has coincided with the promotion of Tyler Bozak to his line?  For the past 15 of those 16 games, Bozak has been predominately featured as Kessel’s centre.  Although Bozak’s statistics aren’t of the traditional “star” variety (a respectable 11 points in those 15 games), he has proven himself to be far from a perimeter player.  Sure, he can get the puck to Kessel in good scoring areas, but what has been most impressive about Bozak has been his constant activity following the pass; namely, a willingness to drive to the net, to keep his feet moving, and to do whatever it takes to force the opposition to pull coverage off of Kessel, thus providing the young winger the space required to work his magic.

    One cannot overlook the contributions of linemates to the success of an individual player, regardless of what the stat sheet tallies are for those individuals.  Although Bozak’s production equates to a 60-point season over an 82-game span (excellent numbers for a rookie) it is noteworthy that Kessel’s former centre, Matt Stajan, was also producing at the same rate, and yet there has been a marked spike in Kessel’s production since he and Bozak have been paired together.  Which serves to reinforce the point that linemates who possess the ability — and willingness — to create open ice for their teammates is just as important for a sniper as a linemate possessing elite precision passing abilities. Perhaps even moreso.

    Looking Ahead

    There is much reason for excitement in Toronto about Phil Kessel’s future as a premier scoring threat.  So long as the right mixture of linemates can be constructed (imagine what he could do with a true power forward driving the net on a regular basis!), he will remain a constant threat to score, or create scoring opportunities for teammates, from anywhere on the ice.  Considering that he is projected to hit 30 goals this season, despite having missed the offseason workouts, training camp, and the first month of play, and having been cycled through numerous linemates, how can one not be excited about next year’s possibilities?  With a full offseason workout regimen and training camp under his belt, and barring any sort of long-term injury, the 40-goal mark may be a very distinct and realistic possibility as early as next season.

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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