It’s been an eventful couple of years for Phil Kessel since he last made an appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The former Toronto Maple Leafs sniper seemed to be at the top of his game at the end of the 2013/14 season finishing with 37 goals and 80 points, good for sixth overall in league scoring. Even though the team had another monumental collapse, Kessel took charge by leading the team in scoring five straight seasons heading into the 2014/15 season.
He was a marquee scorer in the league. Since he became a Leaf, Kessel ranked fifth in goals with 156, only to be out-shined by Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry and Patrick Marleau. He also ranked second among American born players in points with 333. Patrick Kane topped the list at 351. Kessel accomplished all this without a true number one centre at his disposal.
Even with that collapse, it seemed that Kessel could go nowhere but up.
Then came the start of the 2014/15 and everything seemed to go downhill for Phil.
The Toronto Maple Leafs training camp commenced as usual and players came in to talk with the media as they start to prepare for the upcoming season. The season didn’t even start and Kessel was already under attack for only skating during the off-season, “about 10 times.” His fitness was being scrutinized as most players are in shape ahead of training camp with their off-season training regiments. Phil was un-phased by the comments of the media and continued to do things his way.
That season the team looked great at times, but for the most part, they were completely lost on the ice, including Kessel. While he was able to put up the offensive numbers, it was his play away from the puck that was being heavily criticized. He shied away from every puck battle, he wasn’t aggressive on one-on-one battles and at times looked like he didn’t care.
Next came the back to back loses to the Buffalo Sabres and the Nashville Predators, where they were outscored 15-4 in those two games. This led to the infamous “Salute-Gate,” which caused a massive uproar from the Toronto media and fans alike.
While on a six-game winning streak at the start of December, the Leafs then lost seven of their next nine games. After a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, change was on the horizon as Randy Carlyle was fired a few days later. Somehow, the media managed to point the finger at Phil Kessel. Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star asked Kessel if he was a difficult player to coach. That appeared to be the fuse that set Kessel off. At that point, I knew that his time in Toronto was nearing the end.
Kessel was being labeled a “coach killer” after being around the time when Ron Wilson was fired and now Carlyle. Kessel was being used as a scapegoat where the whole team wasn’t playing to their expectations and the coach didn’t have an answer to the solution. Despite having the second lowest point total in a Leafs uniform (minus the lockout season), Kessel still managed to finish first in team scoring with 61 points in what was a “poor season.” At this point, Kessel was still one of the top goal scorers since 2009/10, ranking fifth with 181 and 16th in points with 394.
Then came the ultimate decision to trade Kessel. The Leafs traded the sniper to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Nick Spaling, prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington, a first round pick in 2016 and a 2016 third round pick that belonged to the New Jersey Devils.
Kessel was in a market where he wouldn’t have to answer to the media while constantly being harassed and under the microscope. It seemed like he was in a comfortable environment, one where he wouldn’t be “the face of the franchise.” He had a number one centre in Sidney Crosby and was surrounded by great talent in Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury.
At one point, the Penguins were on the verge of missing the playoffs and everyone was questioning the play of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and even Kessel. All it took was a coaching change to turn things around. And now, Phil Kessel and the Pittsburgh Penguins are Stanley Cup Champions.
It should be pointed out that one of the key players in the Penguins successful Cup run wasn’t the usual suspects. It was Kessel. While Crosby and Malkin did their part, Kessel was more noticeable in these playoffs than both of them.
After finishing the season with 59 points, Kessel took charge and made the most of his opportunity at the time when they needed him most. The Penguins were looking for a talented winger to potentially play with Crosby and Malkin. While it didn’t work out as planned, Kessel still managed to be key in the team’s success down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.
In the post season, the team wasn’t led in scoring by Crosby or Malkin. It was Kessel with 22 points, averaging 0.92 points per game. To top that off, Kessel finished fourth in playoff scoring behind Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks and was one of the top contenders for the Conn Smythe. The Kessel that we saw in these playoffs, was the true Kessel that we saw sometimes in a Leafs uniform.
Head coach Mike Sullivan got what he wanted out of Phil.
“We didn’t get to where we’re at if Phil doesn’t play the type of hockey that he’s played here throughout the course of these playoffs.” – Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach
In an article by TSN’s Frank Seravalli, Sullivan had this to say about Kessel after their 3-1 win in Game 4:
“I love Phil’s overall game. Not just tonight, I’ve liked it through these whole playoffs… What really impresses me about Phil is just his commitment away from the puck, the play in his own end zone, the wall play that he’s participating in. He’s strong on the puck. He’s playing the game the right way now.”
This was the Kessel that Leafs fans wanted to see. He was a warrior when it mattered the most.
While I had the back of James Reimer, hoping he would hoist the Cup, I was also rooting for Phil as well as others that have put on the blue and white. Both players faced difficult times in Toronto and either of them deserved the opportunity to become a champion. It’s always a great moment to see the players you once cheered for find success elsewhere.
Now, there was also the concern of his attitude and the rumour that he was a “problem” in the Leafs’ dressing room, which probably led to his dismissal. Whether you liked the deal or not, it had to be done. Kessel was an issue. And I know Leafs fans had mixed feelings. They were happy to see him go because of the issues in the dressing room, but we also lost an elite scorer in his prime. But the reality was, the Leafs were in a rebuild and Kessel wasn’t going to be a long-term solution anymore. Like they always say, out with the old in with the new.
While it’s not something that as fans we should be proud of hearing, as fans of the Leafs and the game itself, we should be happy for Phil that he has found success where many dream to be in his position right now. The shy and introverted Kessel now has the biggest smile that we haven’t seen in awhile.
And to think, all this happened after a coaching change. Since then, the Penguins meant business. I find it really funny that no one pointed the finger at Phil after Mike Johnson’s firing in Pittsburgh. Why? Because he wasn’t the only one at fault! Everyone on that team took responsibility and now they’re on top of the hockey world. If Kessel was the issue, wouldn’t history have repeated for him, like it did in Toronto? So I guess it’s safe to say, that Kessel shouldn’t hold the title as a “coach killer” after all.
Now we all have our faults and problems that we go through on a daily basis. We’re all different in our own way and not everything makes us comfortable. But that’s what makes us who we are. Phil wasn’t much of talker and wasn’t a fan of being in front of the camera and did things his way. He’d come out every now and then, but even then he didn’t seem comfortable at all. I was once like Phil. As a kid, I was never comfortable speaking in public and shying away from everyone. Now, I can’t shut up.
Should you be ready to talk, especially if you’re an athlete? Absolutely. But we have to realize that he’s a human being and that we all have our flaws.
Let’s say you want to do the EdgeWalk on the CN Tower with your friends, but you have a fear of heights and as much as you want to go, you can’t. Are your friends going to criticize you and feed you to the wolves for not doing something you’re not comfortable with? Or are they going to respect your choice and understand that you have you have a fear and they you’re not comfortable doing it.
Phil just happens to be that guy where he was never comfortable being in the spotlight. It could be his modest personality where he doesn’t want to be “the face” of a franchise. You can’t change a guy’s personality because you want him to act a certain way and conform. I wouldn’t want to be in a world where everyone acted the same. Phil is his own person and if he chooses not to be in the spotlight after every game, then that’s his choice. Phil went to a place where he wouldn’t be in the spotlight and scrutinized 24/7.
You can fault Phil for not coming into the season in shape, like most athletes. You can fault him for only skating 10 times, when he should be hitting the gym more often. You can fault him for his poor play, where in 2014/15, everyone was terrible. But you can’t fault him for who he is. He is human and I think everybody, especially people within the media, tend to forget that. We have seen a reporter point the blame at him for the firing of a head coach. We have seen disgusting pieces about how the hot-dog vendor lost his “favourite customer” when Kessel got traded. But remember this, Phil Kessel gave this team hope. He did his job. And now, he has found success.
I know I’ll remember Kessel as the individual that he is. I remember meeting Phil at an autograph session as an early birthday present the year he first came to Toronto. I asked him for a picture. The down to earth, yet soft-spoken Kessel said with a big smile on his face, “Yea sure buddy. No problem.”
Kessel was viewed as a scapegoat in Toronto, another thorn in the side to pick out as a result of failure from the higher ups and a poor coaching system. Now, he has the last laugh to all the nay- sayers…as a Stanley Cup Champion.
Phil is now thrilled.