TORONTO – On the first day of training camp in his new job as a Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach, Steve Spott was trying to put an off-season disagreement with Phil Kessel behind him.
After the Toronto Star reported Kessel telling Spott he wouldn’t follow the team’s new plan on how to break out of its defensive zone—and Spott relaying that at a coaches clinic over the summer—the dispute became one of the hottest topics on the day players reported for physicals.
While Kessel denied such a conversation even took place, Spott only expressed regret that the star winger had to deal with questions about the situation.
“It’s our job as assistant coaches to get to know what these guys want to do and areas they think we can improve on,” Spott said Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “Phil and I talked about a number of things with regard to power play and where he wants to be. But those are things, that’s my job.
“To think we don’t have conversations about golf and some simple things about the power play, that’s what we’re paid to do. At the same time, it’s a very light-hearted conversation that I had some fun with in a coaches clinic.”
The Star quoted three anonymous minor-league coaches who attended that clinic and re-told what Spott said. Spott, promoted to join Randy Carlyle’s staff after being head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, didn’t refute the report.
“I think we had a very general conversation that took place, talking about his drive, and also talking about different things on the ice, and that’s part of my job,” he said. “Get to know these guys, things they like to do on the ice, things that they think we can improve on, and just getting to know them.”
Kessel said he didn’t read the article but insisted the conversation in question didn’t happen.
“I’ve obviously talked to Spotter a couple times, but it’s not about that,” Kessel said. “It’s more about golf and stuff. I don’t really talk about hockey in the summer, to be honest, if you really want to know the truth.”
Kessel was all smiles as he talked about the 11-foot, 450-pound shark he and teammate Tyler Bozak caught while in Florida and appeared to be in a jovial mood at the beginning of training camp. He laughed off a question about whether he hated his coach and deferred to Carlyle about whether the reverse was true.
When Kessel got serious about coaching techniques, he said he believed deviating from team structure was “how you lose games.” But he added that he doesn’t get any input.
“I have opinions, but I have nothing to do with how this team is run, coached or any of the systems, no matter what you guys think,” Kessel said.
General manager Dave Nonis said the disagreement was “not an issue in the dressing room at all.” Carlyle sought to emphasize Spott’s “tongue-in-cheek” tenor but move on from the entire discussion.
Carlyle, however, conceded that Kessel gets coached in a different way than other players.
“I think there is a double-standard in sports that talented people have to be given a bit more of a rope,” Carlyle said. “Talented people have to have some freedom to take their artistic values and go paint the picture. He is that type of player. He’s a very talented player.”
Kessel, who last season matched a career high with 37 goals to finish fifth in the NHL in that category, agreed.
“I think Randy lets me get away with stuff that other guys might not get away with,” he said. “Obviously I play different than someone else on the team. I think me and Randy have a pretty good relationship in that, and we get along real well in that sense.”
When it comes to what Carlyle likes to refer to as the “white noise” around the Leafs in hockey-mad Toronto, Kessel passed up an opportunity to say extra scrutiny bothered him. In the first season of a US$64-million, eight-year contract, the 26-year-old said there’s nowhere he’d rather play.
For Spott, who previously coached the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers before the Marlies, this was a “Welcome to the Leafs” moment.
“People had asked me earlier what I thought the biggest adjustment would be going from the head coach of the Toronto Marlies to an assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs,” he said. “I just found that out real quick.”
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