Weâ€™ve partnered up with Pension Plan Puppets to bring to you a Player Review series, where we will be evaluating and grading the 2009-10 season for every Leaf who featured in a significant number of games for the Blue and White last season, with an eye towards 2010-11.Today we feature Phil Kessel, profiled by Garrett Bauman.
Acquired via a controversial trade during the 2009 offseason in which three draft picks were sent to the Bruins, Kessel rebounded from shoulder surgery to become the Maple Leafs go-to guy in the offensive zone.
Despite missing a month of the season, the electrifying 22-year old winger led the Maple Leafs in several offensive categories while providing the team with a legitimate scoring threat — and their first 30-goal scorer of the post-Sundin era.
Only 22, Kessel has a bright future ahead of him and many suspect it will be only a matter of time before 40-goal seasons become the norm.
A dynamic skater with offensive creativity to spare, Kessel can turn just about any play into a scoring opportunity with his speed and puck skills.Â A pure shooter, he possesses a hard, accurate wrist shot which he is unafraid to fire from just about anywhere in the zone.
A right-handed shot, Kessel is at his best when setting up at the top of the left faceoff circle from where he can pick any corner of the net with a high degree of accuracy (as his double-digit shooting % the past two years would attest).Â He is also tremendous puck-handler who has showcased a wide array of highlight-reel dekes in the NCAA, Boston, and Toronto.Â Simply put, Kessel has the tools to create goals from just about any situation in which he has the puck.
Some have labelled Kessel as “soft”, but as a smaller player (generously listed at 5’11” 180) in a scoring role, contact is not a part of his game; as is the case for many of the league’s top offensive players. That said, he does need to show a greater commitment to the backcheck and provide far more effort in the defensive zone.
Among Leafs’ forwards, Kessel had the fewest blocked shots of players to play more than 31 games, and his +/- rating (-8) was third-worst on the team. While a part of that number can be attributed to receiving the most ice time among forwards (19:32) on a team that ranked 25th in even-strength goals allowed, Kessel was often found hovering near the blueline in his own zone awaiting the breakout pass, as opposed to taking away lanes or pressing the opposition.
Conditioning is also somewhat of a concern, as Kessel did appear to wear down during the midpoint of last season, before re-discovering his scoring touch following the Olympics. This is most likely attributable to his having missed offseason workouts and training camp due to surgery, although it is an issue which previously generated some criticism during his time in Boston given the tendency of prolonged peaks and valleys in his offensive output. Regardless of whether those concerns were legitimate or speculative, a renewed dedication to maintaining peak physical condition — and to his credit Kessel has suggested as much in recent interviews — can only benefit his overall game.
With offensive-minded players, defensive lapses are often overlooked in light of what they produce offensively, and despite what I wrote above that will likely continue to be the case with Kessel.Â The flip side of that coin, however, is pitfalls in such a player’s offensive game tend to be scrutinized much more closely.
The major criticism of Kessel’s game is his tendency to look for the shot rather than set up a passing play, on the majority of his offensive opportunities.Â While it’s true that a part of the issue was the ability of his teammates to finish — Kessel’s QualTeam ranking, while tops among Leafs’ forwards, was nowhere near the top of the league — a larger part of it is instinctual; the playmaking aspects of the game do not always come naturally to those who are pure shooters by trade.
However, none of that changes the fact that Kessel needs to distribute the puck more often, if for no other reason than to avoid predictability and prevent opposition defenders from shutting down the play before it even begins.Â Comparable players such as Alex Mogilny and Teemu Selanne received similar criticisms early in their career, and with maturity and good coaching were able to develop into more than just pure shooters.Â The onus will be on the Leafs’ coaching staff, and management, to ensure that Kessel is given the tools to develop his game in a similar manner.
Now it’s your turn. In the comments, rate Kessel on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance relative to his potential, and your expectations for the season.
What did you think of the chemistry developed between Kessel and Bozak? Did they show you enough to inspire confidence in the pair as part of a future top line in Toronto, or would the acquisition of a more established centre benefit Kessel’s game to a larger degree?