By Peter Christian
The Toronto Maple Leafs gave up a lot to get Phil Kessel. First they sent the Boston Bruins their next two first round picks (2010 and 2011) and their next 2nd round pick (2010) to get him on their roster. Then they committed $27 million to Kessel over the next 5 years. Oh, and they did all this while knowing he was recovering from some pretty serious shoulder surgery that was going to cause him to miss at least a month of the season.
Sure, Kessel is only 22 and was the 3rd youngest player of the 39 players to score 30+ goals last year (Bryan Little and Jonathan Toews are both younger) and Kessel’s ceiling is undoubtedly high over the next 10-15 years. However, I think now that he is finally back on the ice there are a few things that NHL fans and Leafs fans should keep in mind.
1. Lack of Loyalty
Kessel’s least enduring trait as a hockey player is his lack of loyalty. This fact first reared its head when he spurned not only his home state school, but his homeTOWN school when selecting a college program to play for after finishing up his time with the USA Development Team. Instead of staying home in Madison, Wisconsin to play for the talented University of Wisconsin Badgers, Phil chose the Badgers border battle rivals, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Both teams were ranked and had very good rosters at the time of Phil’s decision, but the Gophers higher profiled offense was more appealing to Kessel than the gritty, defensive oriented play of the Badgers. Kessel had a decent year for the Gophers (18 goals, 33 assists in 38 games, named the WCHA rookie of the year) but the Badgers were the team that won the National Championship.
Following the season, Kessel decided against returning to the team that was expected to be even better than the year before to enter the NHL.
Kessel played 3 seasons with the Boston Bruins (drafted 5th overall in 2006) and his role increased each season. Though, it was Kessel’s dislike of Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien’s playing style that led to his departure. Boston offered Kessel a contract extension thought to be in the $4 million/year range, but Kessel turned it down. The rejection of the offer and the eventual trade both lend validation to the fact that Kessel was more interested in a team where he could get more production rather than win.
2. Playing Under Pressure
It’s yet to be seen if Kessel is a “Big Game” guy. During the post-season for the Bruins last season he turned in a great series against Montreal, recording 6 points in the 4 game sweep. However against Carolina in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Kessel had only 5 points in the 7 game series and in the deciding game (a 3-2 OT loss) Kessel only recorded 3 shots in 24 minutes of ice time. Kessel has the ability to be a consistent scorer but he needs to show that he can be a pressure scorer to lift his team late in games to wins.
3. Desire to Win
Kessel’s last two “Hockey Decisions” were both of suspect motives as he decided to leave very talented teams that were expected to compete for championships at their respective levels for the prospect of money and more opportunities to score. I can’t completely fault Kessel’s decision to leave the University of Minnesota for the NHL simply because the chance to play in the NHL is every hockey player’s dream. However, forcing a trade (which Kessel’s agent denies, but I don’t buy) to a less talented team for the opportunity to get an extra $1 million+ per year and to likely get far more scoring chances is not a decision you’d expect from a guy whose goal is to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Phil Kessel is an exciting player, that much is certain. I just worry that Toronto fans and NHL fans don’t always see him for every thing he is.
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