In part three of his 12 Burning Questions series, Derek Harmsworth takes a look at expectations for Phil Kessel, and whether or not this is the year he cracks the 40 goal plateau.
The start of this article would, naturally, be a good time to refresh everyone about Phil Kessel, his career to date, and the much debated move that brought him to Toronto.
But like Bruno Mars on the radio, it feels like it’s been played out, and for the most part, everyone just needs a break from it for a while. Â Indeed, the manner in which the Maple Leafs obtained the services of Kessel will be something that will be highly debated and evaluated on a continuous basis by, for the most part, those who are not particularly fond of Kessel or the Leafs organization.
Still at the end of the day, and standing alone, Phil Kessel is a talented player, a pure goal scoring forward who loves to use his speed, quick release and accurate wrist shot to open up goal scoring accounts all over the National Hockey League.
A player once touted as the sure thing number one pick, Kessel fell in his draft year to fifth, and was selected by the Boston Bruins. Â And while there is some debate to how rosy the relationship between Kessel and Bruins coach Claude Julien was during his tenure in Beantown, one thing is for certain: on more nights than not, Kessel was a constant goal threat for the B’s.
He had season totals of 11, 19, and 36 goals during his three years with the Bruins, a time that was marred by a number of things, including inconsistency, the aforementioned potential issue with the head coach, a shoulder injury, and bouts of mononucleosis, and his much publicized battle with testicular cancer.
In his two seasons with the Maple Leafs, Kessel has been a key component to the offensive attack, and while you can’t by any stretch say that the past two Maple Leafs teams were goal scoring machines, you can say that the below average totals would be that much worse if it weren’t for the contributions of the 23 year old Madison, Wisconsin native.
And while his time in Toronto has seen him gain much fanfare from the supporters of Leafs Nation, Kessel has at time been polarizing. Â Always a streaky player, Kessel has the ability to excite you and frustrate you all in the span of about a month.
During his first two years in Toronto, there were stretches where Kessel looked to be in a completely different gear than those around him. Â Times when he would seemingly go a dozen games at a time with at least a point or a goal. Â And not just goals, often times important goals: overtime winners, game tying goals, opening goals of the game.
However for every stretch of games where he was setting the league on fire and terrorizing opposition goalies, there were times throughout those seasons where Kessel could go prolonged periods of time without registering a point, and in some cases left you wondering whether or not he was even playing in the game you were watching.
Indeed, there were equal times where Kessel would excite you, and bring you out of your seat. Â And there were times where he would leave you shaking your head, going to the well one too many times with a toe-drag where he should have shot, a long-range shot when a pass would have been a better option.
It would appear to some that the droughts themselves weren’t the frustrating thing. Â The fact that he had shown a skill level that would allow him to take over and dominate a game just two weeks earlier was the root of frustration.
So why is it, that Kessel struggles with consistency?
Is it an issue of Kessel perhaps resting on his laurels, and thinking things will come easy to him while he’s on a hot streak? Â Is it a matter of teams simply being able to key in on him better due to the Leafs lack of other offensive weapons? Â Or is it something different entirely?
No one can really say for sure. Â If we could, I’m sure both Ron Wilson and Phil himself would pay for that type of information.
Still, it’s not as though Kessel’s totals with the Leafs so far haven’t been admirable.
He scored 30 goals in his first season here (appearing in 70 games), and topped out at 32 one year ago. Â Combine that with the idea that he should have legitimate linemates for perhaps the first time during his tenure with the Leafs, and it’s easy to see how some fans catch themselves dreaming of career high for Kessel, and maybe even reach the big 4-0.
Just like every other player on the team, the expectations that Leafs Nation has for this upcoming season means the expectations of individuals will also be raised. Â Kessel, for his part, will be looking to establish chemistry with potential top line partners Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly in hopes of carrying the Maple Leafs post season hopes.
If Connolly can stay healthy, his pass first mentality should mesh well with Kessel’s shooting ability. Â And CORSI ratings be damned, Joffrey Lupul has skill, decent size, and good speed which should open up space for the smaller Kessel.
Kessel can’t do anything about the debate that rages about how he became a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Â No matter his offensive totals, there will still be those that question the deal and perhaps rightfully so. Â All he can do is worry about his actions on the ice, and Leafs fans and management are hoping those actions include a more consistent offensive approach this season.
We know that Kessel has been far from optimally positioned for success in his time in Toronto so far. We also know that players who are primarily goal scorers are inherently streaky and score in bunches. The best advice is to avoid getting too high or too low on a player like Kessel; at the end of the season, you’ll end up with a 30+ goal scorer. A year older and feasibly surrounded by the best supporting cast we’ve seen since his arrival, we’ll see if this all adds up to eight more goals and Kessel’s first 40 goal season in the NHL.