In Toronto, new Leaf has turned up
Phil Kessel returns to Boston Saturday night with his pockets deeper, his game more essential to his team’s success, his status in the NHL raised from a speedy winger with a devilish scoring touch to that of a budding superstar hired on in Toronto to help lead the revival of Canada’s hockey capital.
“He’s an elite player, which isn’t news to anyone in Boston,’’ said Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who figured Kessel was “on the brink of greatness’’ when he signed him in September to a five-year, $27 million contract as a free agent. “The speculation here in Toronto, what people wondered, was whether he would be able to produce without [Marc] Savard setting him up. But we felt from the outset that he was more than just a sniper.’’
Bruins fans, some of whom pegged Kessel as the franchise’s next 50-goal scorer before his arrival in Boston, will see a more electrifying version of the player who showed up here in the fall of 2006 as the No. 5 pick overall in that June’s draft. Over three seasons and two coaches (Dave Lewis and Claude Julien), Kessel’s game evolved, sometimes in painful spurts (including his memorable removal from the playoff lineup in the spring of ’08), to the point where he finally became a very valuable piece of Boston’s offense in ’08-09.
But valuable didn’t necessarily mean valued, or trusted, or essential, or relied upon, certainly not in the way the Leafs now call upon the speedy No. 81 in the Blue and White.
Kessel leads Toronto forwards in ice time per game, 20:48, an increase of 4:15 over how he was deployed here last season. He is not only a member of Toronto’s first-unit power play - time he was rarely apportioned here - but he often quarterbacks the man-advantage, stationed low on the left-wing half-wall. From that vantage point, working on his forehand, he can rush toward the slot to rip off a wrister or dish off to a linemate or one of the points.
Penalty killers around the league have taken to backing off Kessel like so many balloons at a porcupine convention, helping him breathe life into a franchise that was 2-7-3 without him in October but went 5-5-4 upon his return to the lineup after he healed from offseason shoulder surgery.
“He’s a good player, a very good player,’’ said Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. “But that was never a question. We always said he would score, and he has, and I think he’d say that he benefited from playing here.’’
Chiarelli wanted Kessel to return and said late in the summer, with negotiations for the restricted free agent gone dormant, that he was willing to go beyond the three-year, average $3.75 million deal signed by Bruins center David Krejci. But the GM was ultimately convinced that Kessel wanted out, and it became equally clear that he wanted to go to the Leafs, who quickly formalized a five-year, $27 million deal once Chiarelli and Burke finalized a swap that netted Boston a pair of first-round draft picks (2010, ’11) and a second-rounder.
“Painted into a corner,’’ said Chiarelli. “Phil has a special skill set. But the circumstances were such that we couldn’t get him signed here. He didn’t want to be in Boston.’’
Efforts to reach Kessel were unsuccessful, but in comments to the Toronto media, he has contended that he never refused to negotiate here.
“All I’ll say to that,’’ said Chiarelli, knots swelling in his jaw muscles, “is that I’ve said what I’ve said about it - and I’ll leave it at that.’’
Meanwhile, Kessel, with greater overall ice time and his power-play time nearly doubled, is producing points at a slightly better clip than his 2008-09 output. He finished with 60 points in 70 games last season, a rate that would produce 70 points in an 82-game season. Thus far in 2009-10, he has connected for 8-5 -13 in 14 games, a rate that would bring him 47 goals and 76 points over a full schedule.
“I think you’d see him with more assists now,’’ mused Burke, “but the rest of the lineup is still adapting to his passing skills. It kind of reminds me of when Igor Larionov came to the Canucks [in October ’89]. Our guys weren’t ready for his passes.
“Phil hits the open guy with regularity, but the group anticipation isn’t there yet. You look around the league, he’s really playing some exceptional hockey right now.’’
He’s not a different player, but Kessel’s obvious skills are called upon more frequently by a coach, Ron Wilson, who aspires to implement a much different route to success than the Boston model. Like Savard here, Kessel is Toronto’s offensive leader, playing second fiddle to no one, his sometimes spotty defensive play not catching the coach’s glare or ire the way it did here.
Under Julien, who came aboard with shutdown defenseman Zdeno Chara in place as the centerpiece, the game plan is first and foremost defense, a conservative approach that nonetheless helped Kessel score those 36 goals last year and also led Boston to finish second in overall goals (274) to Detroit (295).
Everyone is expected to adapt their skills to the system, the overall plan built on eliminating defensive risk and scoring mostly off the opposition’s mistakes. Wilson is more from the “trading chances’’ school of coaching, structured more around attack, and right now Kessel is his primary barter.
“A valuable addition for us, a dimension we didn’t have,’’ said Burke. “But that said, Peter Chiarelli drove a hard bargain here. We knew those two first-round picks, along with a second, was a hell of a price to have to pay.
“Did we get full value? We’ll see.
“We knew what the risks were going into this, looking at the draft, knowing that, worst case, we could end up giving up a No. 1 pick. And, hey, that risk still exists. We’re better now that he’s in the lineup, and I think he’ll get better and we’ll get better, too.’’
Saturday night, and back here when the Leafs return Thursday night, Boston will see a piece of its future that is now in the past. Like Santa, Phil Kessel is coming to town, his gifts now belonging to someone else. The presents he ultimately brings to Boston to be determined.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.