Back on September 18 2009, Leafs fans were wondering if Leafs GM Brian Burke had lost his marbles. He organized a blockbuster trade, sending 3 draft picks, (2 of them 1st rounders) to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Phil Kessel. Upon arrival to Maple Leafs, Kessel had a slow start and had fans jumping off his bandwagon as fast as possible. Despite the slow and streaky play of Kessel he has managed 3 straight 30 goal seasons, and is on pace to reach a 40 goal season for the first time in his NHL career.
Phil Kessel entering his 3rd season with Leafs, is on fire, leading the league in scoring with 5 goals and 8 points in 3 games thus far in the 2011/2012 season. So with Kessel leading the league in scoring, it begs the question, can Kessel keep this pace up for the entire season? After last seasons less than stellar campaign, and being turned into the league laughingstock after being the last pick for the All-Star game, Kessel has seemed to revamp his play. Not only is he excelling offensively, which is normal for him at the start of a season scoring seven goals in 10 games in Oct. 2010, and 25 goals in 43 career October games, but he is becoming a complete 2 way player and a leader on this young Maple Leaf hockey team. “It probably came out of the constant discussions that if you’re not scoring, what can you do to help the team?,” Wilson said after the Leafs' morning skate on Monday. “He wants to participate a little bit on the PK (penalty kill), as an example, and I’ve told him ‘I not going to put you out on the PK unless you’ve got a 200-foot game going.’ It’s not going to be the cart before the horse. The horse has gotta be first, and that would be getting the game done defensively, five on five, and then we’ll think about the PK.” There is no doubt the playing hockey in a city like Toronto who is just crazed about the sport, is not easy, the fans are ruthless and the media is worse, Kessel has been called a superstar but then criticized for not playing like one, and has been under a microscope since everyone heard about the major price tag that came with Kessel. But is Kessel finally grown up and ready to play in the hockey market of Toronto?
Now it is only 3 games into a season that has 82 games, and 3 games doesn't make a season, (but can certainly end one) and the leafs have been playing 3 pretty weak teams, and wont face a "true" cup contending team until the face the Bruins on Thursday. So lets not put the cart before the horse so to speak.
Coming off arguably his best game as a Leaf, Kessel scored 2 goals to help his team overcome a 2 goal deficit and beat the Calgary Flames 3-2 on Saturday. It would appear that Kessel is scoring goals that are actually helping his team, instead of the second goal in a 5-2 loss. But since Febuary the 10th of last season Kessel has 18 goals and 19 assists in his last 31 games.
So Kessel has finally become a 2 way team player. Not only does he score goals, but he has also shown that he is willing to pass the puck to his teammates, as well as hustle back hard on the back check to help out the Defence. Kessel was named the NHL's 1st star of the week and it was well deserved. “Statistically it’s pretty clear in the way he’s played. There are some great performances obviously throughout the league, but Phil’s done it in every game, so I think it’s deserved,” coach Ron Wilson said of the honour. So what is Kessel crediting his success to? his line mates; “Without my linemates, it wouldn’t be possible,” Kessel said of being honoured by the league. “They’re getting me the puck in good areas and right now we’re clicking.” Currently Kessel is playing with Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul a far cry from what the number one line was supposed to look like coming out of training camp. That just it this, line that was assembled for tempory fix while new number one center Tim Connolly heals from injury, has been one of the top lines in the NHL to start the season. This line has accounted for 7 of 11 goals scored by Toronto. “I’ve always known that defence turns to offence,” said Bozak, who had a pair of assists in the Leafs’ 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Saturday. "I think it has a huge effect," said linemate Tyler Bozak. "When guys see Phil going as hard as he can and playing the way he is, it definitely puts a spark in all the other guys. He's a leader on the ice and guys follow him. When he's playing well it makes everyone work extra hard." With the help of his linemates, Kessel was able to record his first hat-trick as a member of the Maple Leafs.
But the question remains, how will Kessel cope when the pucks stop going in the net. He will need to keep playing a sound 200 foot game, but will he resort back, to his selfish puck hogging ways?
I don't believe so, At 24 years of age and 6 seasons in the NHL I think Kessel is finally maturing and "getting" what it means to be an elite player in the NHL. I think Kessel has finally turned that corner in his career, where he cares and wants to help his team win whatever way he can. Now no one truthfully expects Kessel to continue scoring at this pace, but if he can post a 40 goal campaign, he might just convince Leafs fans to fall in love with him.
Unfortunately the trade will forever be over thunk and scrutinized, as it saw the Bruins pick up some solid players in Seguin, and Hamilton. But for now I think both teams are happy with how things have worked out; heck the Bruins just won the cup and the Leafs are poised to go 4-0 in back to back seasons for the first time in their history.
Right now I'm on Kessel's side; I vote we leave him alone and just let him play his game and help this team win and maybe even sneak into the playoffs. If Kessel tanks and doesn't even reach 30 goals, then you leafs fans have an argument but for now, he's the best player to be in Toronto since the Sundin era.