Counterpoint: It’s Up to Kessel

Counterpoint: It’s Up to Kessel

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Photo credit: Getty Images

The frustration was evident in Phil Kessel’s tone as he answered a stream of media questions regarding his latest goal-scoring slump, now at ten games. Or perhaps, more accurately, his tone was one of resignation.

Sighing often, Kessel repeated the words “I don’t know” on multiple occasions in response to inquiries as to why he has been so snake-bitten, and what he feels can be done to re-discover his scoring touch. This was clearly a player at his wit’s end, a player who seemed to be completely out of answers as to why the puck won’t go in despite numerous scoring chances of late.

It was almost enough to make one feel sympathetic toward his plight; to make one feel as though he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, a victim of perpetual misfortune who was giving his all and unjustly coming up short.

Almost.

.

For a while, it was easy to sympathize with the player. After all, Kessel is a pure goal-scorer, and players of that variety do tend to experience peaks and valleys in their game moreso than steady periods of consistent production. On the surface, it would seem easy to dismiss Kessel’s latest slump as yet another valley from which he will eventually emerge, and that no larger issue was at play.

Until …

“I’m trying. Obviously it’s not going right. Like I said, might not be working out here. What are you gonna do?”

It might not be working out “here”? As in Toronto? Or in reference to those he’s playing with?

I don’t know about you, but that comment bothers me a great deal. Here we have a player whose particular skillset and style of play lend themselves to periods of inconsistency, who when the puck is not going in contributes little else on the ice … and one who would apparently rather suggest he’s trying his best and things simply aren’t “working out here” than face himself in the mirror and ponder what it is that he could do to improve his game.

Now, perhaps that wasn’t his intent — only he knows that for sure — but the comment certainly reads that way. Which is all the more troubling when you consider that it already didn’t “work out” in Boston, either.

In the months prior to the Bruins trading Kessel to the Leafs, there was much chatter over a supposed rift with Bruins coach Claude Julien, a noted taskmasker who demands consistency in all three zones from his players. Although salary cap issues were ultimately blamed for having to deal Kessel, it was interesting that the Bruins chose to stop negotiating with a 36-goal player and seek to trade him instead. In most cases, that is a player a team will move mountains to find a way to retain. Yet the Bruins shipped him out, choosing to retain the coach with whom their young star was at odds.

“Me and Ron [Wilson] don’t really talk … that’s all I’ve got to say about that.” - Phil Kessel

“Phil doesn’t really want to talk much about goal-scoring or even work on it that much in practice.” – Ron Wilson

Strange how these things have a way of coming full circle, isn’t it?

The point of this post isn’t to suggest that Phil Kessel is a bad teammate, a bad player, or even a bad guy. Not at all. In the offensive zone, he’s trying his best. But when the puck doesn’t go in he tends to disappear, in all facets of the game, which fosters a lethargy in his play that carries over into subsequent games. His response to that tendency to allow his offensive struggles to weigh down his overall game, which amounts to a shrug and a simple ‘hey I’m doing all I can’ is disconcerting to say the least, especially in light of his history with the Bruins.

Wilson, who has coached in over 1,300 games and played seven seasons in the NHL, understands exactly where Kessel is at, and moreso that there is only one way out of it:

“It’s kind of a touch thing. He comes and goes with cold streak and hot streaks … at the end of the day, he’s getting the chances and he has to figure a way to put he puck in the net. But a scoring chance that fails should not shut you down the next five or six minutes.”

[…]

“He’s so focused on scoring goals he’s forgetting the other part of the game. If the puck’s not going in and that’s all your focus, a lot of times you’ll end up not being in the positions you should be in and that goes for any player.”

In other words, Wilson is suggesting that in order to regain confidence in one’s offensive game, a player needs to focus on building confidence in the game’s other aspects. A stronger effort on the defensive side of the game, or on setting up and supporting the transistion game, for example, would theoretically lead to the creation of greater and more varied offensive opportunities.

Around the league, many players have often talked about exactly that sort of shift in focus being necessary to escape a funk, or to become a more effective all-around player.  In the late ’90s, Brett Hull, a renowned one-way sniper, revived his career in Dallas by developing a two-way game … and not coincidentally, won a Stanley Cup in the process (and later played a key role in another championship with Detroit). Steve Yzerman was once upon a time subject to talk that he was a poor leader, and only interested in his stat line, all of which disappeared when he focused on becoming more of a complete player … which led to multiple Stanley Cups and league-wide accolades as one of the NHL’s most respected captains.

It is noteworthy that it took both those players a decade each to make that transition; it is not something which happened (or happens) overnight. At the moment, Kessel may be a one-way player who is easily frustrated, and allows that frustration to carry over into subsequent games, but that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t room for him to grow, if given enough patience and support.

When asked what Kessel needs to do to become a more consistent producer, Wilson offered up the example of Paul Kariya, whom he coached in Anaheim during the franchise’s infancy:

“Paul went from being a playmaker to being a goal-scorer and then kind of a combination of the two … Paul was one of those guys who wanted to become a penalty-killer and worked on it and did a lot of different things.”

[…]

“Phil brings a different skill-set. He’s basically a sniper and he gets depressed if the puck’s not going in the net. It’s that simple.”

One of the great truths is the only question worth asking in life is “what can I do differently?”  The top players in the league don’t become stars by talent alone; they reach the highest levels of success through their own willpower, and their own willingness to make the necessary sacrifices and adaptations to their game in order to reach those goals. Simply, one can blame everybody and everything around them for their lack of success, but until they begin looking inward nothing is going to change.

To do so takes a certain level of both maturity and humility, and each individual arrives at the point where they are ready — or able — to take that step at a different point in their lives. Some get there early; others, never do. Whether Kessel is able to take that step, and make those adjustments toward becoming a more complete — and thus, a more consistent — player, is up to him and him alone.

Is Phil Kessel a dynamic player with a rare skillset, and the ability to score 30+ goals per year?

Yes, of that there will never be any doubt.

Will Phil Kessel ever be able to find consistency in his game, and limit the extended peaks and valleys of offensive production that have marked his career thus far?

Until he is able (or willing) to focus on improving his defensive and neutral-zone play, and realize the value of a positive contribution outside of the offensive zone, the answer to that question will remain a resounding no, regardless of which individuals are skating on his line or standing behind the bench.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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