Phil Kessel’s final stats on his first game as a Toronto Maple Leafs: 23:50 minutes of ice time (8:57 PP), 10 shots on goal (20 attempted shots), and 2 for 2 on face-offs. Kessel also managed to have fans hold their breaths in fear after being devastated by a Mattias Ohlund bodycheck. Luckily, he bounced back up and came back just as strong.
As evidenced by his 10 missed shots and a few missed passes, timing is the biggest issue facing Kessel right now. But what the Leafs have seemingly lacked all season, Kessel filled the role of bona-fide top-3 forward to perfection. For some, that’s an alarming trend. The venerable and several kinds of awesome Down Goes Brown, finds it depressing to see how much more offensively talented Kessel is compared to the rest of the Leafs forwards. DGB isn’t incorrect in his assessment. When Kessel was gliding towards the opposition’s zone only to see him waiting alone, the dearth of high-end skill in the lineup was clearly evident. However, I don’t quite see it as a glass half-empty proposition. To me, Kessel is just another piece to the puzzle.
For a team to be a viable Stanley Cup contender, a few common elements exist across the board. Though there are exceptions, for the most part, a franchise player (or someone close to it) should exist at each position. The Leafs believe Luke Schenn will star in the role of franchise defenceman. [My Name Is] Jonas Gustavsson is quickly cementing his place as the Leafs franchise goaltender. Will Phil Kessel join the ranks of franchise forward as found on every Stanley Cup contender? Obviously, that remains to be seen.
In his second game, Kessel managed only two shots, but picked up his first point as a member of the Leafs in a hefty 19:42 minutes of ice time against the Carolina Hurricanes. Once again, Kessel exhibited his world-class speed. While he missed on a partial breakaway, Kessel showcased a better than advertised two-way prowess not seen in his first game. The improvement is showing, and more importantly, the entire team is working better together.
Third game in, Kessel finally scored that elusive first goal on an apologetic tap-in goal near the end of the first period. In 18:15 minutes against the Detroit red Wings, Kessel had four shots and scored two points. While his goal wasn’t pretty, scoring goals, as Kessel said, “It’s just an instinct thing.” For a team that lacks a pure goalscorer, Kessel’s words are a breath of fresh air. He wants the puck, he wants to score, he expects to score.
While still very early, the infusion of one Phil Kessel has boosted the Leafs offence immensely. Singlehandedly, Kessel has greatly relieved the pressure from his teammates to score. Just as Gustavsson has finally given the team confidence to "…take a few chances here and there thinking that you’ll get a stop at the other end", Kessel’s influence has extended that confidence to the offensive zone, too.
The Leafs aren’t out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination. Losing seven in 15 games inevitably makes it difficult for any team to make up those lost points. But Toronto is showing signs of life and becoming that cohesive, difficult to play against team many envisioned before the start of this season.
Kessel may not be a franchise forward yet, but he is exactly what this franchise needs right now.
(Photo via Daylife)