Toronto Maple Leafs: Phil Kessel Finds His Safe Place


Toronto Maple Leafs: Phil Kessel Finds His Safe Place

The passage of time allows for a sober second reflection.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, Phil Kessel never reached his full potential with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mar 28, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) warms up before playing against the Ottawa Senators at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, he couldn’t reach it: the supporting cast of players around him simply wasn’t good enough.

Opinions vary on Tyler Bozak, but the general consensus is that he’s not a true top-line centre. At best, he’s a solid option to anchor the second line. A lack of depth on the Leafs, however, forced the team’s hand: Bozak was the best option to skate between Kessel and James van Riemsdyk on the first line.

To put that in perspective, Bozak was tasked with the same basic responsibilities as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, etc. That’s some pretty impressive company, but it’s also pretty obvious that Bozak doesn’t belong in the same conversation with players of this caliber.

Bozak’s best season came in 2013-2014 when he collected 49 points (19 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games. That was also Kessel’s best season to date: 80 points (37 goals, 43 assists) across 82 games. The extended absence of Bozak and lower per-game production numbers from him make you wonder how Kessel would’ve finished the season skating alongside a true top-line centreman.

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  • (I just want to reiterate a quick point: this post isn’t meant to attack Bozak – it’s meant to highlight the obvious disparity in skill between Bozak and Kessel. It was wrong of the Leafs to put Bozak in such a position.)

    The other man in this equation – van Riemsdyk – set a career high in points during the 2013-2014 season as well. He powered his way to 61 points (30 goals, 31 assists) in 80 games. He put up similar numbers last season whereas Bozak and Kessel both took significant steps backward.

    In other words, the 2013-2014 season represented the height of the van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Kessel line, but it was only good enough to produce one point-per-game player. For a team with ambitions of making the playoffs, those numbers didn’t get the job done and considering the lack of depth behind them, the team’s dismal fate was essentially sealed from the outset. Unfortunately, it would take another full season for management to realize the future rested elsewhere.

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    Looking forward to his new home with the Pittsburgh Penguins, everything should quickly turn around for Kessel. Whether he’s playing with Crosby and Chris Kunitz or Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, there’s plenty of talent in Pittsburgh to see Kessel eclipse the point-per-game marker for the first time in his career.

    Even former Leafs head coach Ron Wilson predicts Kessel will hit 40 goals next season – the same guy who recently called Kessel a coach killer in the media. That says a lot.

    From my view, Kessel would be a better fit on the Crosby line since this basically replicates his line from Toronto: a set-up guy who can score and a power forward with decent hands. If he plays on the Malkin line, there’s a chance his role and Hornqvist’s role might overlap. In any event, that’s still a solid line.

    Oct 5, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) celebrates his goal with right wing Phil Kessel (81) and center Tyler Bozak (42) against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Senators 5-4 in the shootout. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Things never quite worked out for Kessel in Toronto because the right players weren’t around him. That problem doesn’t exist in Pittsburgh and whatever attitude issues he might bring to the rink, a big season almost certainly awaits him. The greatest advantage of playing in Pittsburgh, however, may be the fact he’ll play second fiddle to Crosby and Malkin.

    Kessel has finally escaped the limelight. He’s now free to act as himself and focus on his own game. He was always a luxury item – a piece that complements an already established team – and Pittsburgh knows this. They don’t expect anything greater from him nor need it.

    Pittsburgh is Kessel’s safe place.

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