The Evolution of Phil Kessel

William Wilson February 22, 2013 8
Phil Kessel celebrates a goalPhoto by The Leafs Nation

Phil Kessel has only managed to find the back of the net three times as we approach the midway point of the current NHL season.

In years past, this would have been a major cause for concern: Kessel’s a goal scorer, and if he’s not scoring goals, then he’s not doing his job.

This was particularly true during his final two seasons in Boston (2008-2010). Kessel recorded 66 goals in 140 games across those two seasons. He also assisted on 49 goals, but the difference in production speaks for itself. These are two seasons where Kessel really established himself as an elite goal scorer in the NHL.

(In fairness, Kessel recorded 11 goals and 18 assists in 70 games during his rookie campaign. This feat was followed by 19 goals and 18 assists in 82 games during his sophomore campaign. In these years, the balance between goals and assists was reversed or close to parity. Having said this, Kessel’s “true potential” has always been as a perennial Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy candidate and these early seasons were interpreted in that respect.)

The young American’s first season in Toronto proved no different. Kessel notched 30 goals and 25 assists in 70 games. Such an accomplishment is all the more remarkable given that the 2009-2010 edition of the Leafs where basement dwellers.

(Ironically, Toronto would finish second last that season. Their compensatory draft pick – second overall – would end up in the hands of Boston as part of the payment for Kessel.)

Despite Kessel’s obvious prowess as a goal scorer, however, there was a hint of coming change during the 2010-2011 season. Kessel achieved parity in goals and assists that season – 32 a piece – in 82 games. Of course, the high goal count continued to grab attention, but the dramatic increase in assists should have garnered some attention as well.

Kessel’s breakout year would happen the following season. Playing alongside Joffrey Lupul for the majority of the season, Kessel eclipsed his previous career-best in points, scoring 37 goals and 45 assists in 82 games.

The main improvement came in the assists department. Kessel’s previous best for assists in a season was 32 (2010-2011), which equals a 13 point improvement. This compares positively against his previous best for goals: Kessel scored 36 goals during the 2008-2009 season in Boston for a 1 point improvement.

Fast forward to the present season and Kessel has seen his claim on the team lead in goals vanish to James van Riemsdyk. Against Kessel’s paltry 3 goals, JVR has collected 11 goals. In fact, this may be the first time Kessel fails to finish first in team goals since joining the Leafs.

Nonetheless, this hasn’t signified the end of Kessel’s world. He has kept pace with JVR for the team lead in overall points by adding 12 assists.

Both players now stand at 15 points, contributing in different ways to the team’s strong start to the season.

Unfortunately, it seems Kessel has found himself under constant criticism since arriving to Toronto. He’s a one-dimensional player; he’s a defensive liability; and he’s plain ol’ unreliable the critics have charged.

Boston is a major hockey market, but Toronto is the hockey market. Kessel has seen an entire city come to tears over his many goal scoring slumps, but this hasn’t stopped him from competing every night. Kessel has responded to the critics by constantly evolving his game.

Right now Kessel stands at +5 on the season, which is a remarkable turnaround from the disappointing -10 he carried last season.

He is also currently tied for second overall in the league for shots and while the goals have been sparse, the young winger’s luck is bound to change at some point. In the meantime, he’s clipping along at his regular 0.7 points-per-game career average. The only real difference concerns the source of his points: he’s now living off the assist, not the goal.

I won’t lie: Kessel still ranks among my least favourite Leafs. In my opinion, he lacks the drive and presence that define some of his closest friends on the team. Here I have Tyler Bozak, Lupul and JVR particularly in mind.

However, Kessel is the type of player that I can see myself learning to love. For one thing, he’s shown a tremendous ability to evolve his game under pressure.

If nothing else, this suggests a continuing place for Kessel in the Toronto spotlight.

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