It has been over 2 years since Kessel has been traded to the Blue & White, and ever since trade day (T-Day) Phil has been put under the spotlight by fans, media, and alike. I have no interest in evaluating the deal, as it has already been done to death, and the fact of the matter is that all players involved are either too young/inexperienced to play in the NHL as of today, or have been in the NHL for far too short of a period for proper judgement. So now that the trade discussion is finished here, allow me to take a look at the player himself.
When he first arrived, Kessel was thought to be a 1-dimensional scorer. Needless to say that he performed as advertised. Great acceleration, drive for the net, and a quick release were all attributes of this hopeful star winger. The problem that was soon realized was his streakiness, mental state, and work ethic. As all Leaf fans know, he could be brilliant for a week, and disappear for the next two. The inconsistencies in his game caused fans to be sceptical about the trade, and immediate criticism was in store for both the newly acquired winger as well as the GM who traded to get him (Ah crap, back to the trade). The Leafs continued to drop, and Kessel’s 30 goals cold not make up for his lack of defensive play and streaky scoring.
The next year brought more of the same. Inconsistent scoring was still an issue, and although he had handled constant questioning about the deal (as well as his desire to stay with the Blue and White) as well as any players could in these one-sided interviews, you could see the toll it was taking on the young sniper. The enjoyment of the game seemed to disappear from his face, and it seemed like the growing pressure was taking a severe toll on him. We then reached the All-Star Game. The honour of representing his team at the game was overshadowed by an unfortunate circumstance. The new draft format caused Phil-The-Thrill to be picked last by his team, leaving him to answer such dumb questions as ‘How does it feel to be picked last?’ in what I’m sure was already a very frustrating situation. Phil was still able to put on a very respectable face for the remainder of the segment and ended up leaving with a smile.
I believe that this was the last straw for Kessel. Enough was enough. He would finally do whatever it took to prove the critics wrong. Enter the long-awaited work ethic that had been missing to that point. Kessel finished the season with 25 points in his last 24 games, but he stayed under the radar as the main focus was yet another year ending short of the playoffs.
What was noticed by Kessel was a change in his play. He was back checking on a regular basis for the first time in a Leaf’s jersey. He began relying on his line-mates more (i.e. Lupul), letting them get into position so he could feed them a perfectly placed pass. In essence, he became far less predictable than the Kessel of the past. He created his own chances rather than letting the puck make its way to him as a result of other people’s hard work.
The reason this wasn’t discussed was because of the short time span over which this occurred. 25 games do not define a season, and hockey fans and analysts simply saw it as him ending on yet another streak. Rightfully so, I should add.
The 2011-2012 season begins. Phil jumps out with an unbelievable 7 goals, 5 assists, in 5 games. To those that hadn’t been watching his play over the years, simply wrote it off as a hot start, and assumed he would slowly fade away. Only, he hasn’t. With 13-points in his last 12 games, he has not kept up the 2+ points-per-game average, but he is without a doubt performing like a top 10 winger in the league.
Those who have been watching have noticed the improvements. He is this first one back regularly, his head is always up now looking for the pass first, he has gelled very well with any centre they have thrown between himself and Lupul, and he has even changed his demeanour. A very business-like expression would normally be displayed on Kessel’s face these past 2 years, but you can now see the enjoyment in his eyes that so many top-notch players seem to have. He is having fun again and that does wonders for a player’s on ice product.
So what do we expect now from Phil? Letting go of the trade and letting go of what could have (or should have) been, I can say that I am extremely happy with what we have got in Phil. A newly found work ethic, a back-checking, playmaking, sniper, with incredible speed, and an ability to find open ice on a regular basis, is what makes Phil one of the more dangerous players in the league at the moment. There are still plenty of problems in leaf-land, but at the moment, our best offensive player is not one of them. He provides that glimmer of hope that we may have a truly elite player on our hands, and at the age of 24, I do not see why he wouldn’t have the potential to become that player we have been looking for again since the departure of Sundin.
All I can say is, well done Phil. You have been overcoming some of the harshest critics in the sport, and if he can keep working to improve his game, I look forward to being able to cheer for #81 for many years to come. Keep up the good work!
Next Blog: Player Review – Joffrey Lupul