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What are your honest expectations of—and for—Phil Kessel in Toronto?

For those who may not have visited VLM in a while, here are some recent posts:

  • Which Leaf will you miss seeing the most if there's a lockout?


For today, let’s not worry about the likelihood of a September hockey lockout.  Let’s move forward as though we are going to have hockey (who knows, maybe saner heads will indeed prevail….) this coming season- and a season that starts on time, at that.

What I’d like to focus on is the player in our line-up who is a bona fide offensive star.  To me, he’s not a superstar, but he is an elite player, from a skill standpoint. I’m talking of course about Phil Kessel.

Some of you who stop by VLM fairly regularly will know that I’ve used the phrase, “he is what he is” in the past when speaking about Kessel.  By that I have meant that he is a player with high-end speed, a very explosive (not just “quick”) release and the ability to puck the puck on—and in—the net.  He is prone to droughts as most players (even goal-scorers) are.  He is a mediocre, at best, defensive player. I love the he can use both sides of the ice, and is dangerous flying in on his off wing.  When he does that and heads to the middle of the ice and suddenly snaps that wrist-shot, goalies are often caught off balance, creating at the very least rebound opportunities for his linemates.  The guy generates scoring opportunities at high speed, not something everyone can do, even in the NHL.

Of course part of being “what he is” is also his perceived laziness, or maybe putting it more nicely, his seeming inability to play hard every shift, every night. Turnovers at the other team’s blueline or anywhere, for that matter - one of the not infrequent criticisms of young Phil - rarely make a coach happy, even coaches who like to give their players some creative freedom.  (And I'm not sure Carlyle is one of those coaches...)

Now, part of my “he is what he is” comment reflects my perception that, at least at this stage in his development as an NHL player, he is in fact not more than what I describe above.  That is, he is not, for example, a leader.  He is also not a physical guy, despite his decent size. And, he just doesn’t give the impression that he is “all in”, all the time. (Being caught on film yawning on the bench in the middle of a  game, as happened last season, doesn’t help the negative perception…)

In short, he’s no, say, Doug Gilmour.

Thus, my comment—though not a final career assessment, for sure— that he “is what he is”.  A supremely talented young player, but one missing some "check marks" on his list of attributes.

Now, we all understand that players mature and develop over time.  For some, it takes longer than others to become complete, all-around players who are really good in both ends of the ice, who do more than make nice plays and score goals - as important as that has always been in hockey.  That said, some guys never really become solid two-way players at this level.  They remain fairly one-dimensional contributors while making a living scoring goals, and that’s fine.

But we can all name players who, over time, morphed into more than being an offensive threat.  I often cite Ken Hitchcock’s influence on Mike Modano, and Scotty Bowman’s on Steve Yzerman.  But there are many more examples of player growth that came with time, experience and added personal commitment, to be sure.

Is Kessel, for example, a “pressure” player?  I don’t think we know, because while he put up nice stats in his early career playoff appearances with the Bruins, he was not the player he is now, nor was he the focus of the opposition’s defensive preparations in those playoff series.  That playoff sample size is modest and not necessarily relevant to what he might do now.  In Toronto, Kessel has been playing regular-season games, putting up very nice numbers here, but rarely playing in what we might call meaningful match-ups—you know, in big, late-season  games that will make or break the Leafs being in the post-season. How would he respond?  We don't really know.

If he does help lead the Leafs to a playoff appearance soon, we can be assured he will be a huge part of what the opposition will look to thwart.  Kessel will undoubtedly face far more physical play than he is accustomed to, should the Leafs make the playoffs this coming spring.  Any playoff opponent that the Leafs encounter will surely look to take him “off his game”.  I don’t think Kessel likes to be hit (I realize not many guys do, but let’s be honest, some players do indeed thrive when a game is physical…) and I’m not sure he is the kind of player who will fight through the tough checking to make things happen in those situations, based on what I've seen in some difficult regular-season match-ups.

But my broader question today, as much for myself as for you, is: what will Kessel become in the years ahead?  Also, will the fact that he is now going to be somewhat constrained playing under Randy Carlyle not only curtail his offensive production but also his desire to stay in Toronto?

But the "Carlyle factor" aside (and both parties were making nice at the end of the regular season last spring...), what do we project when it comes to Kessel?  Just as scouts have to assess 18 year-olds and try to determine whether they can a) play some day in the NHL and if so, b) what kind of player they may turn out to be, we are now looking at a soon-to-be 25 year-old player who has already shown offensive prowess well beyond the vast majority of his colleagues, but, like some other great Leafs before him, often seems to leave us wanting more. (In historical terms, I'm thinking of, say, a Frank Mahovlich, the outstanding long-time Hall-of-Fame Leaf winger.  Kessel also brings to mind, as I've mentioned in this space before, someone like a Mike Walton - the 1960s Leafs speedster seen in action above right along with goaltender Bruce Gamble in one of those wonderful old Harold Barkley photos.  Walton may have been the most offensively skilled guy on those late 1960s Toronto teams), 

Do you see in Kessel a guy who will ever be a leader?  Right now, I don’t see it.  He’s a guy that, the last two springs, has not wanted to play for his national team at the World Championships. Yes, he had a minor injury this past April, but when I think of real “gamers”, real leaders, guys who really love the sport, they generally play past “minor” injuries when they have a chance to represent their country, especially when they are still young and don't have, for example, major family obligations.  (Heck, some guys do it every spring, even into their 30s...)

But it’s more than that.  He is a quiet, shy guy, at least when it comes to the media and all the public stuff that goes with being a professional athlete nowadays.  That’s not a bad thing at all—and not intended as a personal criticism of Kessel on my part—but I wonder if that discomfort will ever lessen, or will hinder any possibility that someone like Phil can ever be a “leader” in the way we tend, fair nor not, to think of leaders in the world of hockey.

Beyond that, do you one day see him becoming a better all-around player?  I don’t mean that just he becomes a little a bit better at his back-checking responsibilities. I’m talking about his overall play—his involvement at both ends of the ice.  His determination. The willingness to be physically engaged when necessary.  Playing hard.  Fighting through tough checking.  Making the players around him better (which I think he already does in many ways).

I certainly don’t expect a player like Kessel to fight for his dinner.  That’s not his thing.  He’s not Lucic, nor do I believe any of us are expecting him to be.  But many observers would like to see him develop into the best player he could be, without losing what has made him special thus far in his career.  Will he ever be a truly fierce competitor, for example?  I don’t know.

Phil Kessel is more naturally talented than most (even NHL) players can even dream of being.  But will he ever be more than what we see now?

What do you think?


  1. I think there's another major quality that Kessel has, besides his scoring prowess - he's a terrific set-up guy. It's no accident Lupul had the year he had playing with Phil. And if Bozak had better hands, he'd have had a great year too. All to say I don't really expect more from Kessel. As you say - he is what he is: an elite scorer, a threat on most shifts, and a guy who makes his linemates scoring threats as well. It seems a bit unfair to ask him to be Yzerman or Modano - it's a bit like criticizing a fish because it's a great swimmer but can't fly.
    Phil needs some protection, because he's going to get awfully beat up every year once we get past the all-star game. That's up to Burke and Carlyle. If we ever get that punishing forward we've heard so much about over the past few years, and he can play center... I think Phil will deliver everything we can fairly expect of him.

  2. Good point, Gerund O', about Kessel needing some protection as the long NHL season wears on. It sure feels like it's time to take advantage of Kessel's presence while he is still very much in his prime....

    Well said. Thanks, Gerund O'.

  3. I have not really bought into the idea that Phil and Carlyle are going to clash, or that Phil won't fit into whatever system Carlyle puts in place.

    I definitely won't say Phil is a soon-to-be Modano or Yzerman, but we know players mature, their game changes. At 25 Phil is young still, and fast, and has a great shot. As Gerund points out, he's also a pretty slick passer. He hasn't lost those skills.

    I get the concern that Carlyle has a reputation as a defensive coach, and a taskmaster. I can see where one would think the freewheelin' Kessel would chafe at the harness that could be put on him.

    But, Phil is also entering that time in his career where many players who were deemed as purely offensive snipers start to learn their speed will drop off, they won't always be able to beat the defender outside, and they learn to see the ice better. Moreover, they figure out that backchecking is sometimes a great way to get the puck back, rather than circling in the neutral zone waiting for the breakout.

    Not sure why I seem to be on such a 'positive' bent these days, but I think Carlyle may actually help Phil mature into a better all-around player.

    Again, I won't expect him to be Gilmour or Yzerman or Modano, but with a defensive-minded coach, and younger players surrounding him (as I expect the Leafs will have many rooks and sophs in the lineup), Phil could realize it's time to add more to his game.

  4. To a certain extent, Mark, we are reduced to speculating about Carlyle's impact on someone like Kessel. You raise good points, as always. It's just so hard to project how the relationship will go, whether it will thrive or sour over time. And that, of course, would no doubt influence what Phil "becomes" here.

    Thanks Mark.

  5. Michael,

    You and I see Kessel exactly the same way. He is what he is. There is no reason for me to think that he will ever be more than he is right now. This is not a bad thing. He is supremely talented when he has the puck. He just doesn't seem very interested in the game when he doesn't have it. I think that being a guy who can score 40 goals a year in the League is great, quite an accomplishment even, and he needs to be just that good given his lack of effort and ability in his own zone. To me, Kessel is the perfect winger on the second line of a great hockey team. The Leafs need to become that team. Imagine how good Kessel would be away from guys like Chara. That would be something to get excited about in Leafland.

    As to whether or not Phil changes or matures as a player is not something any of us can make sense of. Some guys figure it out over time, some guys I guess, are happy doing what they are doing so to speak, and don't. Jeremy Roenick says that early in his career he was told that if he ever failed to finish another check it would be his last game in the League. I don't see that sort of thing happening to Kessel anytime soon.

    I look at it like the goaltenders who can handle the puck and those who can't. It seems on the surface something that would be very easy to change, but can't be or no one would notice how good guys like Brodeur and Turco are at it. I am certain that Jonas Gustavsson spent a lot of time practising handling the puck behind the net, yet he still handled it almost always like a bag of snakes.

  6. i agree with the points of kessel being an elite foreward in the league, but would add that his lack of physical play has meant that he has played two 82 game seasons. he stays healthy to do what he does, and that's score.

  7. I couldn't help but nod along with your post today, Jim. On the money.

    We are so focused on Phil being "the guy" here, we maybe miss what it would be like if, as you mention, we had enough talent that he was actually a second-line sniper- and therefore drew less attention from the opposition.

    Roenick is a good name to mention here. He was a skill guy, maybe not quite as skilled as Kessel, but Roenick played with that edge we don't see from Phil. (Maybe it had to do with Roenick playing for Mike Keenan early in his career, though I sense that's also just the kind of player Roenick was, and the way he liked to play...)

    Your point on goaltenders is a good one, too. I've often though "c'mon, it can't be that hard to improve in that area...." . (When I was young, in the late '60s and early '70s, Eddie Giacomin was the gold standard for goalies and he used to kill the Leafs clearing the point before they could get to their dump-ins...) But clearly, guys like Brodeur and Di Pietro mastered that "skill" through hard word and repetition.

    Short post but great stuff, thanks Jim.

  8. Fair point, khanlari. Kessel has been a mini iron-man in Toronto, and that should not be overlooked in this discussion.

    It still leaves open how he will be able to handle playoff hockey, but as you say, his job is to score goals, and he does that. Thanks.

  9. I think Kessel has another level. I think he could turn into a 50-60 goal scorer. But based upon Kessel's personality I don't think this is something that he wills himself to accomplish. I think this comes as a result of the addtion of another player. Perhaps it's Getzlaf, but I think it has to be a big body with some skill.

    Based upon some rumours coming out of San Jose...I wonder if an aging Joe Thornton in the last years of his career might be the guy throwing pucks to a streaking Phil Kessel.

    I hear that SJ is already starting to consider the transition from their aging veterans Thornton, Marleau and Boyle. Those guys eat up $21 million a year and are all UFA in July 2014. If SJ is losing lots of money perhaps it's time to let Couture and Pavelski be their first two centers. In a trade a cheap guy like Bozak might look quite godd on third line. I wonder what else it would take?

  10. It's funny that you mention San Jose, DP. As you may recall, I've mentioned here before that Marleau will, in my view, be moved by the Sharks if they can find someone to take his contract. Thornton, now that's a much bigger deal...

    But yes, Bozak could be a perfect third-line guy there. Someone who can still put up points, make plays but also be responsible defensively and win face-offs.

    As you say, what it would take to make it happen, I don't know.

    Good stuff. Thanks DP.

  11. As you said Michael, Kessel "is what he is", and yes he does have a few checkmarks missing. That being said, I think we can say we've seen some positive changes in Kessel since his arrival in Toronto.
    1) He is a more mature player now and has shown a bit more patience. Not perfect, but better.
    2) He is more "team-oriented", and wants everyone to succeed, rather than just himself.
    3) He has dedicated himself to maintain a better fitness level, and works harder in practice. He wants to polish his game.
    4) Kessel has the greatest success when he has support from his linemates and other lines. Lupul has given him some added room on the ice. Bozak has been okay, but a good 2-way first-line center would help Kessel even more.

    As for how he'll fair under the coaching of Carlyle, that is a good question. I remember there was a lot of concern about how he and Ron Wilson would get along. They had some rocky moments, and I remember one night Wilson even made Kessel a healthy scratch, and had him watch from the press box. That lit a fire under his butt.

    Hopefully Carlyle realizes the offensive weapon that Phil provides and doesn't try to change his game too much. I'm of the opinion that Phil just needs a strong winger and a good 2-way center. If you look at a lot of their goals against last year it was when Bozak got too caught up in the offensive zone with both Phil and Lupul. Somebody has to stay high and be able to get back if the puck is turned over.

  12. Can't argue with you, TML__fan. I agree that Kessel has made some adjustments to his game and approach. While he is still, in my mind, lacking in some areas, he has matured, no doubt.

    Let's see. Carlyle may see Phil as you do. Maybe he will not ask more of the guy than can reasonably be expected. In other words, ask him to be responsible, but allow him to do what he does so well.

    Other weapons in the line-up would clearly help!

    Thanks Don.

  13. I realize it was a different era, but, I seem to recall Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy being pretty good, high scoring, non-physical "skill" wingers (Steve Schutt too)...not unlike Kessel. Is Kessel begin "penalized" for being on a poor team? I think so. If he was surrounded by a guys like Bryan Trottier, etc...I think we'd be pretty pleased to have a under 25 guy that can consistently score 30+ per year. He's capable of 50 easy on a better team.

  14. Excellent point, JB.

    It may well be because of the current state of affairs that so much is expected of Kessel. He is our "elite" go-to offensive player. And as Jim, DP and Gerund all also alluded to above, a little "help" wouldn't hurt Kessel, either.

    Dave Keon was one of the finest Leafs of all-time, yet he wasn't a "physical" player. (He was superb defensively, however, and led the team in take-outs every year...) And as you say, Lafleur, Bossy and some others were not necessarily expected to spend all their time in their own zone.

    It's a different era today, it seems, and we often expect even the most talented guys to contribute at both ends- maybe more than we (and even coaches) should.

    Thanks for chiming in on this one, JB.

  15. Phil Kessel has already faced significant adversity in his young life and may be more of a quiet leader than we could perceive 'from the outside.' His perseverence through cancer may well apply perspective to both his past and his future.

    In the former case, there may well be a protocol in place regarding Phil's long-term health that allows for him to have more recovery time following a season (even if we'd love to see him play overseas). Though it is true that most players should play if they can, I feel that when the Leafs miss the playoffs, it is the right thing to begin phil-ing up his tank for a longer period of time and rebuilding his resources for the future!

    Respecting the latter application, Phil may well have developed a hidden level of character that we have yet to see implemented in the post-season. With the press, I like his seemingly aloof attitude ("I don't care" about being picked last at the All-Star Game), yet it is clear he takes the game very seriously/personally and tries hard in ways, I never could on skates!

    I hope the lack of post season for the Leafs is a blessing in disguise. I hope that Phil Kessel will find more pieces for his game as he matures and strengthens and as his health scare recedes into the past. I hope his strength of character will become evident when we make the post-season! I hope we all enjoy Phil for what he is becoming!

  16. Nicely said, InTimeFor62.

    One small thing I'll add, and I believe it ties in to what you posted. The fact that Kessel has not played in the spring (World Championships or playoffs) in recent years may give him a longer shelf life than players who get worn down as a result of being involved in the playoff grind season after season.

    Thanks InTimeFor62!

  17. JB wrote:

    "Is Kessel begin "penalized" for being on a poor team? I think so. If he was surrounded by a guys like Bryan Trottier, etc"

    Now there's a thought...all complete with superb historical references...

    Think of it, a modified "Trio Grande"...Gilles, Trottier and Kessel on the right wing.

    In my mind Trottier is almost the perfect center for Kessel with his two-way play and Gillies provides the protection.

    I think Kessel might score more goals than Bossy on that line as Bossy never had Kessel's fantastic speed.

    What was that my dad used to say about Bossy: "Parked on a lawn chair in the slot and waiting for the pass"?

    Kessel would be coming across the line with Trottier and accelerating towards the me that's tougher to stop.

  18. I absolutely see what you're saying, DP. You're Dad was right about father used to say the same thing about Gordie Howe (though Gordie was a much more imposing all-around player than Bossy was...).

    Kessel would be a tremendous winger, fleet afoot as he is, with a guy like Trottier, who was a hard-nosed centre and big Gillies, who was a massive winger and so tough to play against.

    Now, we could probably debate whether Bossy was a bit more of a natural sniper than Phil, but that's a tough argument either way. Goals were certainly plentiful when Bossy played in the '80s.

    Thanks DP, you built perfectly on what JB was saying...