With the NFL playoffs currently unfolding, the storylines in football circles revolve around the usual topics—Can Peyton Manning win another Superbowl, can Tom Brady get a step closer to winning the most of all-time, can Aaron Rodgers do what Brett Favre couldn’t (win two), can Tony Romo win one?

Even though we do not get quite the same amount of NFL and NBA coverage in Canada as we would in the States, it is still common to hear about the globalized stars in those sports and how many championships they have or have not won. Perhaps it is the influence of those major sports and their massive media followings that have had a trickledown effect on hockey, causing people to discuss players and Stanley Cups together as if they are one in the same, in a sport where it could not be any harder to relate the two.

Both the NBA and NFL are full of elite, all-time, Hall of Fame players who never won a championship –Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, to name a few. While I do not want to argue whether we should judge those players in those sports based on championships alone, in a realm where we could, consider this:

A good basketball player plays upwards of close to 40 minutes. LeBron James on the season is averaging 37.5 minutes a night, in 48 minute games. That means on a regular night he is playing over 78% of each game. In basketball, especially in crunch time, we will see the floor clear and one player will try to score on another player straight up to decide the game. A superstar, thus, has a substantial say on just how well his team is going to do.

In football, it is difficult to put an exact time on how much time a QB has the ball –it varies per team—but the gist of it is this: quite literally every play your team runs on offense goes through the QB. What player can say that in hockey? Maybe a goalie can for the opposite end on defense, but that is about it. A QB can call or switch the play, decide what receivers he wants involved, and make or break many players’ careers. There’s nothing like that in hockey.

In the NHL, if you’re a good forward you will play somewhere in the 19 minute range (there are only 10 forwards playing 20+ minutes a night this season). Even if you round up to 20 minutes, that means a good forward is playing roughly 33% of the game, taking 2-3 SOG out of your team’s 30 or so shots, so maybe 10% of your team’s total shots. In hockey, nobody clears the ice and let’s two players go at it in isolation unless it’s for a fight or a shootout. A really good hockey player might have the puck on his stick for a little over a minute or 2% of the entire game.

We can see how difficult it is for one elite forward to truly impact a team’s fortunes one way or the other dramatically.

This is why possession has become such a craze: You need to control the run of play because teams are too deep now to rely on a few players. You try to win on the balance of probabilities by regularly out chancing the other team. To a lesser extent, this is also why talented players who aren’t good defensively, such as Joffrey Lupul, still hold tremendous value to a team—they can score in an instant and change a game. A game breaker.

And that brings us to Phil Kessel, a player who will get more and more heat if the team’s struggles continue.

When people say you can’t win with Kessel, it is based on an imperfect understanding of how wins are generated. There is a saying in hockey that it is a lot harder to win a Cup than to simply get there; which is to say, you will find the odd Cup finalist that really didn’t have a strong roster, but you’ll never find a championship team that didn’t have at least five legitimate all-star players.

The Kings, the most recent champions, boast Doughty, Kopitar, Carter, Quick, Gaborik, and a whole litany of above-average players. Their nemesis of late, Chicago, has Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook and a deep support cast. Other recent champions include Boston with Bergeron, Chara, Thomas, Krejci, Lucic; Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar, Staal, Letang; Detroit with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall, or Carlyle’s stacked Anaheim team with Selanne, Pronger, Niedermayer, Getzlaf, Perry, Beauchemin, and more.

The Leafs have Phil Kessel. Maybe JVR, too. One day Nazem Kadri will probably get there –maybe even next year—but not yet. Same goes for Bernier, who hasn’t quite shown he’s ready to be a horse as of now. Phaneuf has decent scoring numbers, but he hasn’t played at an all-star level this year, probably just below it (I could name at least six defensemen in the East who have been better than him and at least 12+ in the West). Maybe Cody Franson could be included there this year, as he’s been really good. That’s about it for now.

So, in a world where people talk about “Can you win with Phil Kessel,” the answer is, “well of course you can.” He is third in points in the NHL since the 2010-11 season, and what team couldn’t use that? Put him on Minnesota, a strong possession team that struggles to score, and see how good they become almost instantly. Or back to Boston. Or to San Jose. Any of those teams become instant Cup contenders with Kessel.

That doesn’t mean Kessel is perfect, far from it, but he is a piece. Most players on the Leafs are not “one of the five,” but Kessel is. Unequivocally.

He has his faults too, though. In preparation for the NFL playoffs, I was reading Grantland’s preview from Bill Simmons, who had this little tidbit on QBs and what makes them great:

[quote_box_center]I wholeheartedly believe that NFL quarterbacks succeed for the following reasons: “talent” (25-30 percent) and “everything else,” which covers leadership, charisma, personality, work ethic, intelligence and not doing basically anything that Johnny Football does (70-75 percent). You’re not just the QB in pro football; you’re the CEO. You’re setting a week-to-week, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute example. If your teammates don’t believe in you, if they don’t follow you, if they don’t totally care about protecting you or fighting for you, then you’re done. If you can’t crouch in a crunch-time huddle — down four, three minutes left, 80 yards to go — and look your 10 dudes in the eye and say with complete confidence, “WE ARE SCORING RIGHT NOW,” then you’re never making it in (Cris Carter voice) the National Football League. [/quote_box_center]

Kessel isn’t that guy. We know this. He doesn’t want to be bothered, he doesn’t want to be the guy who speaks up, he doesn’t want to be the guy who fires the team up with a speech or a physical shift, or whatever else. He wants to come to the rink, not say a word, score a goal or two, and then go home. If you dog it on a back-check or screw around in practice, he isn’t going to hold you accountable. He makes $8M a year, and nobody on the team can come close to doing as little as him and still be as successful. Kessel is just a naturally gifted person who is amazing at hockey. But you can’t be the best player on your team, and the guy making the most money, and not be a leader. No matter how little Kessel wants to be that guy, by default he is, and we all know it.

To make matters worse, he just happens to play the least impactful position on the ice by a mile. A scoring winger, regardless of how elite, is about the last thing you point to as the starting pillar to build a team around.

But he has time on his side. He’s only turning 28 this year, is extremely durable, and his game relies on something that is difficult to see escaping him anytime soon—a deadly, unique snapper.

While the Leafs toil through another season – will they or won’t they make it as a mediocre bubble team… probably not, but stranger things have happened — Kessel will be the recipient of more and more ire for a litany of reasons. Some of the things he does are problems, but he is not the problem. You can’t judge hockey players individually on their championships because you need at least five high-end players with a strong support cast to win one. Kessel is one of those five, but since the day he got to Toronto it has been management’s responsibility to surround him with the rest of the core necessary to win a championship. Six years and counting and it still has not happened yet, and to some that is somehow Kessel’s fault. Go figure.

Notes

  • One factor not discussed enough with Mike Santorelli: When he started the season, it was his first NHL action since January 2014 due to shoulder surgery. With that in mind, he was always destined to be at least a little behind some of the other players who ended the season relatively healthy. Coming to Toronto, Santorelli was a center, and the Komarov-Santorelli-Clarkson line was considered by some the Leafs‘ best trio to start the year. When the line got split up and he played with Kadri, it was announced by Carlyle that he is better as a winger right at the time when he began swinging into form due to games played while also playing with a player better than anyone else he had played with to that point (Kadri). In Vancouver, his worse possession numbers were with Ryan Kesler of all people; granted, they took the tough match-ups together, but that is a little telling. The career center plays a game that relies on speed, puck management, and hustle, all things a strong center needs. He struggled at the faceoff circle to start the year and is at 47% on the year, but he is a career 51.6% faceoff man, so it’s more likely that was due to rust more than anything else.Santorelli is fourth on the team in points, by the way.
  • It is going under the radar, but Dion Phaneuf is on pace for 45 points at the moment, playing 23+ a night. His current 22 points in 40 games has him sitting 19th in scoring for a D-man (Franson is tied for 14th). His production has been there, but in his last two full seasons he had strong starts and then tailed off as the year went on. The first time was under Ron Wilson after his infamous “he’s the best defensemen in the league by a country mile” quote, and last year it was after he signed his big contract. Will it be three years in a row?
  • When Kadri broke into the league, he had two main shootout moves: The fake backhand and pull it forehand, and the flick backhand in the high corner (video). It was nice to see him add a new move against Boston with the backhand five-hole play on New Years.
  • Lately I have seen people wondering about buying out David Clarkson, but here is the problem in doing so according to the now-defunct Capgeek:

    2015-16: $4,716,667
    2016-17: $3,716,667
    2017-18: $3,716,667
    2018-19: $4,716,667
    2019-20: $4,716,667
    2020-21: $466,667
    2021-22: $466,667
    2022-23: $466,667
    2023-24: $466,667
    2024-25: $466,667

  • Logistically, it just doesn’t make sense yet with how much it would cost, how long it would cost them, and where the Leafs are at as a team. The truth is they will have to ride that deal out as long as possible to mitigate the eventual buyout down the road, but they aren’t a good enough team to justify doing it at the moment.
  • On the note of Capgeek, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a few words regarding, in my opinion, the best hockey website on the internet. On January 3rd it was announced the site ceased operations because its owner, Matthew Wuest, has health issues. Capgeek was a site I frequented daily and an integral piece of me following the game I love, and it will take me a long time to get over not having it. Most importantly, best wishes to Matthew and his family.
  • I wrote a note about Connor Brown earlier in the year that pointed out how being a top scoring AHL rookie does not necessarily mean he will be a successful NHLer, but it is worth following up on and noting he won AHL rookie of the month in December with 12 points in 14 games. His 28 points in 35 games leads the Marlies by a mile (McKegg is second with 17). When I think of Brown I think of a conversation I had with Dave Morrison in the summer, when he said, “I would never say a player is going to the NHL, but I would never bet against Connor Brown and how hard he works.”

Quotes

[quote_box_center]“You don’t always have the luxury to say that you’d like this player or that player or this type of player. That’s not the way it works. How it works is you have an organization that provides you with players, and our job, as we’ve said all along, is just to coach ’em up.”
– Randy Carlyle, after another embarrassing loss to the Winnipeg Jets.[/quote_box_center]

Can’t tell if this is a shot at management, his players, or his own coaching staff and the job they have done (Carlyle concluded). You decide.

[quote_box_center]“I think anyone who graded or made a bold prediction at the start of the season would have had Toronto as a 7-10th place team in the East. So, in that regard, they’re not disappointing.”
– Darren Dreger, on TSN radio.[/quote_box_center]

It seems like a decade of mediocrity has shifted the benchmark from the Quinn era – which was championship or bust — to playoffs or bust. If this was a young team with an extremely bright core, making the playoffs and getting some experience is a fine goal, but Kessel, Bozak, Phaneuf, Lupul and Clarkson are prime age or going on veteran. JVR has been to a Cup finals, Bernier has a Cup ring, Kadri and Gardiner have been to the playoffs and represented their countries at numerous events. The goal should be so much higher than just scratching and clawing to play 4-7 extra games in the season. If this group is incapable of doing that, the goal should be finding a core that can. It really is that simple.

[quote_box_center]“If you’re not having success and you’re not showing that growth, there’s going to be changes. And we know that; whether it’s me or Bozie or Phil or Dion or Naz or Clarkie, we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to show ourselves and coaches and management that this team is growing and there’s been times we have and times we haven’t.”
– Joffrey Lupul, on the team’s core.[/quote_box_center]

Say whatever you want about Lupul, but at least he actually gets it.

5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. Needless to say, if you have not read the notes, I would move Mike Santorelli to center. Without Kadri he is the closest thing to a two-way center they have left, and I would probably reunite the Komarov-Santorelli-Clarkson line from the start of the season that was actually able to cycle and match up (to a degree) against a top six line reasonably well.
  2. On that note, I think I would just stick Winnik on the top line with Bozak and Kessel and keep him there regardless of if their production suffers because of it. They need to get some defense and cycling out of that line, and we have seen enough to know that it isn’t going to happen with JVR there. It probably won’t with Winnik there either, but it is at least a start.
  3. I think I know that I am just rearranging deck chairs with line suggestions at this point. The bigger issues are actually finding a legitimate top-6 center (still) and top-4 D (still). The added depth has been really nice this year (Komarov, Winnik, Santorelli), so I think it hammers home without a doubt that depth is not the problem. Of course, we knew that last year, and yet here we still are.
  4. I think Morgan Rielly needs to play more. Rielly is a top-5 pick who probably would have went higher if it weren’t for a significant knee injury that cost him most of his draft year. Even still, there really is nothing more “blue chip” than a top 5 pick. Rielly averaged 17:37 last season compared to 17:58 so far in 2014-15. As a comparison, let’s look at the guy drafted with the pick right after Rielly, Hampus Lindholm. He had 30 points playing 19:26 a night in 2013-14 (Rielly had 27 points), and this season is playing 22:10 and has 16 points with 54 SOG. Rielly has 12 points and 74 SOG playing over four minutes less a game. In what world can Lindholm be developed that much faster and counted on for top four responsibility on a team that is a legitimate Cup contender, but Morgan Rielly can’t play in the top four on an at-best bubble team where Korbinian Holzer and Roman Polak play more on average than he does?
  5. I think I would look to clear some clear veteran outcasts (Smith, Booth, maybe a defenseman) and promote some kids from the Marlies just to start seeing if there is anyone there who can maybe be counted on to play a significant chunk of games next season. Players like Josh Leivo, Connor Brown, Sam Carrick, and Stuart Percy. This is not an immediate action requirement, but something to keep in mind before the trade deadline because you only have a limited number of call-ups to use after the fact. Getting some experience and reads on these kids is going to prove highly beneficial in the summer, especially if the team can plan for some cheap production from a Marlie or two heading into next season considering the Leafs’ cap situation.

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