Custom Search

The Kessel-Carlyle collision course is a brewing……

The Wednesday night tilt in Pittsburgh did not quite set up as nicely as the home encounter at the ACC versus the Bruins the night before.  But with Crosby still absent, Letang out for a while and Fleury needing a night off, the Leafs looked like a team with a shot at two points—albeit playing a pretty hot Penguin team.

The Leafs are still in the playoff hunt, and knew they were playing a goalie that was between the pipes for only the second time in his NHL career. And they showed some early jump, despite losing Brown and Franson early.  Kessel scored yet again, then Gunnarsson re-directed a nice Grabbo wrister to give the Leafs a lead that, under Carlyle, you’d like to see them, well, close the deal.

Unfortunately, the Penguins still are the Penguins, even without some top performers.  They inched their way back, and eventually earned the one-goal victory.  The Leafs probably had their best opportunity to tie the game late in the contest on the power-play, when Kessel was in his familiar spot, but the Pittsburgh rookie goaltender made a nice save off the quick release.  When Bozak shot the rebound toward the empty net, only to see his would-be goal hit Connolly’s foot, you sort of sensed this was not going to end well.

Win or lose, I’m not going to get into “everything is going well, don’t the Leafs look a lot better under Carlyle” if they win, or, “it’s the same old Leafs” when if and they lose.  They are competing pretty hard, fighting for pucks, still making nice plays.  In fairness, they did all those things fairly often under Wilson the last couple of seasons—when they were usually a good third-period team and staged a number of successful comebacks.

But for now, yes, guys are working hard, competing.  Even Connolly seems to be more engaged.  But the line-up will change again because of injuries, and perhaps because Komisarek is a minus 4 in the last two games.

As for the goaltending “situation”, I have no idea.  Gusstavsson has made some big stops, playing all three games so far under Carlyle. I’ve said for two seasons, at least, that at some point if they want to find out if Gus can play, he needs to start a string of games without fear of being pulled in-game or benched for the next game.  But at this stage of the season, I’d also like to ensure that the young man we have signed for the next two seasons and who saved our butts a year ago (Reimer) gets his share of games in too—so he can also head into the off-season with some confidence.


Some of you will no doubt recall the beginning of the 2009-’10 season.  It was Brian Burke’s first full season in charge as the General Manager of the Maple Leafs.  Ron Wilson was entrenched and fully secure as the team’s Head coach.  Wilson was the “firmer hand”, the guy who would push the team to do the things they refused to do under Paul Maurice during Maurice’s two years behind the Leaf bench.

The team’s biggest acquisition was, or course, Phil Kessel.  He started the season on the injure list, and when he returned to the line-up, Wilson gave him a long leash.  He wasn’t called upon to do much other than score goals—a much-needed skill set on a team not exactly generously gifted in that regard.  “Phil the Thrill” rewarded Wilson (and Burke) with 30goals in his first season as a Leaf, in only 70 games.

By the beginning of the 2010-’11 season, the Leafs were pumped and ready to roll out of training camp.  Unlike the previous season, when they were without a win in their firs eight or so games, as I recall, they cranked out four consecutive wins to kick off the new, hope-filled season.  But an interesting thing happened.  Wilson, in one of those early games, benched Kessel, sending a quiet message that more would be expected of him in his second season as a Maple Leaf.

In fact, lest we forget, it was the middle of that 2010-’11 season, was it not (and not so very long ago), when Kesel was again tied to the bench at one popint in mid-season, or a bit before, was it?  And after a practice the next day, he shocked Leaf world when he grunted a comment about maybe needing a change.  The media, naturally, ran with it, wondering if Kessel was “asking out”, wanting to be dealt out of town.

Kessel quickly met with Burke and was reminded that he was, in fact, happy here in Toronto.  Also, that his comment had nothing to do with wanting a trade, or anything along those lines.  It was maybe a change in lines, we were supposed to be believe.

Now, to be clear, frustrated athletes, like any of us, are prone to say things they may not have chosen to say a day later, but “in the moment” they react and say things.  Fortunately, most of us aren’t asked to give “interviews” to all kinds of reporters when we are still perspiring from a hard day at work. So the opportunity for us to say something controversial just doesn’t arise too often as it does for someone like Kessel.

In any event, that was all smoothed over and everyone bought the Leaf-crafted lines.  But my point is, as the Leafs were getting more “serious” about getting better, and Wilson needed a stronger all-around game from Kessel, the coach was demanding it.  And he expected Kessel to respond.  By and large, Kessel did, at least offensively, with 32 goals and 64 points overall.

Fast-forward to this season. Lupul and Kessel provided a lot of the early offensive fireworks, meshing beautifully together many nights.  Kessel has continued to put up big-time points, and we were led to believe, by the Leaf organization powers that be (and even the mainstream media and commentators like Greg Millen…) that Kessel was indeed playing a stronger all-around game—and was much more responsible in his own zone, playing a 200-foot game, etc.

Of course, we all know where things now stand.  The Leafs hit some kind of a wall about a month ago, and could not get out of it.  In came Randy Carlyle, who is supposed to make things better.  If Wilson was a more demanding coach than Maurice, then we are led to believe that Carlyle will be even more demanding, and that it will be Carlyle’s way or, well, you don’t play.

I don't know about that.  I don’t know that the Leafs have the luxury just yet of sitting their star players, nor should they, if they under-perform on the scale of higher expectations.  The idea is to get their top players to “buy in”, to play the aforementioned complete game, over all 200 feet of the ice surface.

Those who follow this site will know that I’ve mentioned Kessel in this context before:  as in, will he ever really be able to adjust his game—as he gets older and matures—to become say, a Mike Modano  or a Steve Yzerman type of player.  That is, players who, when they were young, were largely offensive players but after several years in the league, came to see that there was a better way to play.

Oh, I know Yzerman has this reputation that he was a great all-around player right out of junior, and to a certain extent, he was.  But he was an explosive offensive player, who still “cheated” on offense.  And there were, just as there are with Kessel, questions about whether he was a true leader.  So much so that the Wings, and Scotty Bowman, almost traded him to the expansion Ottawa Senators.

I don’t know if Kessel is on a career path to be a leader, but any player willing to pay the price can become a better all-around NHL’er.  I only use Yzerman and Modano (another elite speedster who only become truly clutch when he accepted that the game was best played at a determined level over every inch of the inch) as examples.  You can fill in the blank with whatever name works for you.

Kessel turns 25 when the 2012-’13 season gets underway next October.  He is young, so highly skilled, so explosively fast and dangerous. I don’t ever see him being a physical player, or a guy with that “presence”, but who knows? Guys evolve, right?

But Carlyle will need Phil to play hard and smart, consistently, all over the rink next season and beyond.   Against Pittsburgh Wednesday night, Kessel was often dangerous on the attack, as he has been most nights this season—even when he doesn’t score a goal or set up a linemate.  But his tendency, seen the night before against Boston as well, to not make certain important little plays—get the puck deep, cover the right man with intensity, etc.—too often bite him, and therefore his team, on the back side.

Right now, it’s early days under a new coach.  Carlyle, as I posted a few days ago, won’t likely be throwing any guys under the bus just yet.  He is trying to drive these guys to the finish line and grab a playoff spot.

The larger prize lies ahead.  But to get there, Kessel may be Carlyle’s example “A”.  Not only for himself, but as an example to teammates that if he, the team’s best and most dangerous offensive player, accepts the responsibility of becoming  a “total package” Leaf—an elite player—others will follow.

If that happens, then it will be very good news in Leafland.

Now, if we hear the words from Kessel but don’t see the delivery, he will inevitably be on a collision course with Carlyle.  It’s not a scene Burke ever wants to have to deal with, as in “picking sides”.  So my guess is Kessel will spend time this off-season getting ready to play a slightly different style of game come next September.  He can still be that explosive, smart, offensive force.  We just need him to be serious about being “responsible”—and not just talk a good game.


  1. I have mentioned this before but I am just hoping for a Brett Hull under Hitchcock transformation.

    I always like to think of Kessel as Brett Hull with wheels. Hull went on to play well in Detroit. He never became a physical player, but under Hitchcock and later in Detroit, Hull eliminated the worst parts of his defensive problems and became a better defensive player.

    I think that's all you can hope for with Kessel. He won't hit or play a physical game. He will just clean up his worst mistakes.

    In a future game like tonight, he would clear the puck harder and that alone would have prevented two goals.

    He will also learn to come back faster.

    I don't think Kessel will ever carry the team on his back, but like Brett Hull, he will be that very important sniper of good team.

    The Leafs still need the Modano, Yzerman, Federov, Datsyuk for the Hull-like Kessel.

  2. Kessel has improved his two-way play this year, but when you compare intangibles, I would take Taylor Hall over PK in a heartbeat. I live in Edmonton now - altough I bleed blue & white - and on many nights he is the the major force on the Oilers. And he is only 20.

    Without fanning the fires on Nationalism too much, I have to say that I am in Cherry's corner regarding Canadian players. Bruce Dowbiggin wrote of the uniqueness of the Canadian attitude in THE MEANING OF PUCK; and although he was being critical of the tendency of Canadians "to do whatever it takes to win a hockey game" his point to me anyway, is valid. Canadian players tend to want to pay the price to win on this game - much like Steve Yzerman did when Bowman asked him to become a better two-way player. Stanley Cups ensued.

  3. Well said, DP. There is room for Kessel to grow, and he likely will. But as you say, help will no doubt be needed as well....

  4. Here's a really good quote from Hull on Hitchcock:

    “He’s the best X’s and O’s coach, showing you how to beat the other team, that I ever played for,” said Hull, who played for Hitchcock in Dallas. “Every game, we were prepared and ready to beat the other team.”

    That’s not to say that Hull understood that right away.

    “For guys like Joe Nieuwendyk and myself, we really had to figure out how to do it. It takes a little bit of time. It takes a full-time commitment to that game.”

    “The hardest thing for the young skill guys is that some of their freedom will go away, and their numbers will take a hit, but when you see those wins pile up you forget about it.”

  5. Thanks, Shaftesbury. Good post.

    I hear you on Taylor Hall. I know people might say (and perhaps fairly so) that is not Kessel's game. But as DP says, he can improve his all-around game, even if he does not become a physical player. (On the Edmonton theme, as I have mentioned in some earlier columns, I still think it is an interesting comparison to view how the Oilers and Leafs are going about their so-called re-builds. With guys like Nugent-Hopkins, Hall, Gagner, Pajaarvi and the guy I love (Eberle) they sure have a ton of young skill up front...

    And I agree, as I posted, with your point on Yzerman. Small adjustments can mean big results.

  6. Great stuff, DP. Very relevant on the Kessel development "question"....

  7. I'm seeing it a little differently, though I know we agree on the basics. The team feels "off" to me - perhaps understandable when the culture changes so drastically. Fun's over! I think Kessel, Lupul and Phaneuf, who all seemed to be doing pretty well under Wilson, are no longer the golden boys. And they're playing like they know it. I expect a surprising and significant change to personnel before next season starts, or shortly thereafter - assuming Burke is still GM.
    I thought the team benefited from Kessel's pout last year. The air was cleared, it seemed, Wilson became less acerbic, and we put a nice little run together until Chicago kicked our behinds and we couldn't get our mojo back. Kind of like what happened this year after we played those two good games against the Pens a few weeks ago. But noticeably, Kessel hasn't really been saying all the right things this time. And both Lupul and Phaneuf have sounded quite unenthusiastic, to my ears.
    The O'Malley crystal ball, usually clouded I must admit, says our problems are far greater than ones Kessel's performance can affect one way or the other. If he keeps scoring 30+ goals a year, that's fine by me. We'll have to wait till next year to see if Burke can put together a team that can make the playoffs. At this point, I'd just as soon see some of our Marlie "potential" for the remaining few games.

  8. Admittedly not the best comparison but James Neal and Milan Michalek have close to the same number of goals well also penalty killing and overall being far better defensively.

    Yes I am quite aware of both having superior linemates, notably no.1 centers, but when people talk about Phil Kessel I have to remind them he will not be a defensive gem....ever. There's a reason he was the odd man out in Boston.

  9. The biggest adjustment Phil will have to make is between his ears. No one here or elsewhere has really questioned his skill or talent-that's coming out his ears. It's his attitude to playing that 2-way game and buy into a system that seems to have plagued his career. Sure, we saw flashes of it the first month of the season, but then it became the problem Phil again, like in Boston.

    I feel he's one of those guys who may need to be coddled by one of the coaches (in a manner of speaking) like Hitch did with Hull and others. Rather than call him out in public, a softer approach may be necessary with the sensitive/star player (sounds cheesy, but what's the saying? you catch more flies with honey??). I like how Carlyle so far has taken a non-confrontational tone when addressing this. We've lost the draft picks (Seguin, Hamilton, whoever), so let's get past it and focus on Phil. I think with the right coaching, he can be effective and find that drive. Heck, just a few years, this guy overcame a very evil disease and came back with 4 straight 30 goal seasons, right?


  10. Gerund O'...yes, it will be interesting to see guys like Kessel and Phaneuf respond to Carlyle, including their public enthusiasm (though that can be camouflaged, as we well know...)

    Phaneuf is still playing huge minutes, as he did under Wilson. Kessel's still producing, but it's the "other stuff" that he will be pushed to improve upon.

    The summer will be (here we go again) fascinating in Leafland, as they re-build the team again, this time to accommodate the new coach.

  11. may be right, though if, as DP pointed out in his Brett Hull/Hitchcock reference above, if Hull can "adjust" his game, almost anyone can- if they are willing to do so.

  12. Very well said, Caedmon.

    There doesn't have to be a negative public pronouncement from Carlyle. I agree, I felt Carlyle talked through the subject quite well the other day. But I also agree with you- the majority of this "work" with Phil be have to be private, one-on-one.


  13. My observation from watching last night's game was that the Leafs looked very tentative in their own end particularly when first retrieving the puck after a Pitt shoot-In. Gus, Phaneuf, and the forward coming back seemed unsure how to play it.
    I don't think it was only Kessel who stood out as missing assignments. I'm prepared to give him and the others a little time to adapt. Hopefully he "buys-in" along with the others.

  14. In some ways, Ed, it may be hardest for the "stars" like Kessel and Phaneuf to adjust to a new style of play and different expectations under a new coach.

    I agree that Kessel is far from the only guy who misses assignments. It's a fairly widespread issue many nights with this team, as it has been for a number of seasons.

    I do sense, though, that one of Burke/Carlyle's bigger challenges will be ensuing that Kessel becomes at least a more (if not fully) complete player. He has shown signs this season that he is capable of a better all-around game.

    Whether it's a lack of "belief", a preference to play to his strengths or he is in fact trying- and ike any player trying to make things happen, is simply making mistakes, I guess we will have to see how things unfold.

    Thanks Ed.

  15. Another great post, Michael.

    I really hope that no friction festers between Kessel and Carlyle. Phil has a unique skillset, and demanding from him what he is not is not necessarily the best way to get from him what he is. I'd like him to improve the weaker points of his game, but not at the cost of his strengths, and certainly not at the cost of animosity.

  16. Well said, Brent. It would be best for all concerned to work together, and my guess is every effort will be made to do just that. Kessel has a rare skill set, and with a few tweaks to his game, should be an impact player for years to come. Thanks.

  17. I agree with your comments Mike. I hope Brent is right!

  18. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 9, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    Part two-To his credit, Mr. Burke has built up the prospects for this team. However, his over-valuing, his narcissistic attitude, and his constant fighting with the media (which he is never going to win) has pretty much worn out his welcome. If he does not give the right product in the summer for Randy Carlyle to work with, we are looking at missing the playoffs for eight seasons and counting.

    Sorry for the long post Mike, just had to get it off my chest.

  19. I always appreciate hearing your perspective, Long Suffering. Never an issue. Thanks.