Keys to the Kessel


(Author’s note: the intent of this analysis is not to ignore the great work of Nik Kulemin, I just couldn’t really find any particularly compelling or solvent data to include in this article. Also, I just graduated university, so for the 0 fans of my work who were wondering where I was…uhhh… drinking, mostly)

The 2009 – 2010 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs was one of transition, the decrepit monolith created by John Ferguson Junior being thoroughly and carefully dismantled by Brian Burke in an attempt to bring back league-wide respect and playoff aspirations to the storied franchise we know and (as of late) begrudgingly love.

The rebuilding process undertaken by Brian Burke, in my mind, began in earnest with the April 3rd 2009 signing of one Tyler Bozak to a two year entry level contract. Early returns on the Regina (the city that rhymes with fun!) native were a respectable 27 points (8g, 19a) in 37 games, displaying the ability to control the play in the offensive zone and find seams for snipers high in the slot. Add to that his draw ability in the faceoff circle, his improving defensive acumen, and a tenacity on both the fore and back check. His downsides, of course, are a lack of experience, weight (which makes his 52 hits not particularly devastating ones) and the perception that he is MVR levels of fragile.

Due to inexperience, cap issues, illness and injury, Bozak was denied the opportunity to dress for all 82 games. Over a full 82 game slate his totals project as 18 goals and 42 assists, and he reasonably could have challenged for the Calder Trophy. Indeed, it certainly appears that Brian Burke didn’t make an empty boast when he suggested that Bozak’s signing was like getting a free, developed 1st round pick. While I don’t foresee him scoring much better than 55 – 65 points in a season, he stands to be a defensively responsible team-first guy (think Mike Fisher/Joe Pavelski) who has the very special ability to make the good players around him even better.

Case in point: the play of Phil Kessel was markedly better with Tyler Bozak in the line up. Perhaps the highlight of Burke’s rebuild (until the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf) Phil the thrill tallied 30 goals and 25 assists in 70 games played this season. Of interesting note for the sake of this analysis is the fact that Kessel spent just over 50% of his season with Bozak in the line up (36 games with, 34 without). Below are Kessel’s split stats:

Without Bozak: 34gp, 14 goals and 9 assists for 23 points
With Bozak: 36gp, 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points

Of a dubiously positive note, the data suggests that Phil Kessel’s ability to score goals was predicated on his own ability more so than his linemates. Far more promising is the fact that the chemistry Kessel developed with Bozak brought to the forefront another dimension to Kessel’s game. Playing on a line with the vaunted Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky, Phil Kessel was a gunner. Rightfully so, given Kessel’s quick release and laser shot.

However, the disparity in assists hint that perhaps #81 had less faith in Stajan and Poni’s abilities with the puck and felt the need to do it all by himself. While I believe that Phil Kessel has world beating talent, he doesn’t have the size, strength or speed to be a one man show as yet. If nothing else, the addition of Tyler Bozak was an injection of talent and allowed Phil Kessel to play more of a team first game, and the results give both pause for thought and hope.

Additionally, the Toronto Maple Leafs brass should keep the following in mind. During their 36 games together, there were 11 instances in which both players failed to tally a point. The Leafs record for those 11 games? 1 – 8 – 2. In three of those losses, the leafs were shut out. This speaks to both players youth and relative inability to lead a team, play consistently/steadily, but moreover to the Leafs dearth of forward depth.

Brian Burke is far smarter and more connected than me, and has likely has a report detailing similar information and more importantly a short list of top 3 or top 6 forwards that he intends to coerce into a blue and white uniform. But he has certainly found lightning in a bottle with this combo. While the Bruins may end up with a Tyler of their own, Leafs fans should be thankful that the one we got seems to suit our prize Philly. If the two can stay healthy and can stay together all season (based off of an 82 game projection), then don’t be surprised if you see Kessel’s 2010-2011 regular seasons stats reading 36 goals, 36 assists for 72 points. Or better.