TORONTO – Phil Kessel says it was all just a misunderstanding.
One day after making headlines with cryptic comments about his relationship with Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson and his current role with the team, the struggling forward was much clearer with his feelings on Monday morning.
Kessel repeatedly stated that his frustrations are solely with his own play.
“I love Toronto, I want to be here,” Kessel said before a game against the Atlanta Thrashers. “I love the city, I love the fans, I love the team. The guys are great here. I don’t want any trade or anything like that.
“I want to be here for a very long time.”
The 23-year-old has been a lightning rod for Maple Leafs fans because of the price GM Brian Burke paid to acquire him from Boston in September 2009—two first-round picks and a second-rounder.
Kessel is locked in his toughest stretch of the season, having gone 10 games without a goal. He had two seven-game droughts earlier in the year.
“Obviously, I’m frustrated,” said Kessel. “The way it’s going right now, we’re not winning (and) I need to be better out there.”
That frustration was evident when a handful of reporters spoke with Kessel after Sunday’s practice. He said things “might not be working out here”—Kessel clarified Monday that he meant with his linemates, not the team—and said “me and Ron don’t really talk” when asked about the coach.
If anything, the situation might have created more dialogue in the dressing room. Kessel addressed his teammates on the issue Monday and sat down for a conversation with Wilson.
“Phil’s just got to relax,” said the veteran coach. “I told him to relax. We don’t have any issues. Eventually, you’re going to come out of it. The law of averages shows he’s a 30-goal scorer and he’s going through a hole right now.
“If you extrapolate it out, he’s going to score 30 goals.”
Kessel had 19 goals in 52 games entering play Monday.
General manager Brian Burke spoke briefly during the first intermission of the Thrashers game and acknowledged the winger may need some better linemates.
“I think the reason that Phil hasn’t put up the numbers can’t just be put on his back,” said Burke. “I think it’s a failure of team personnel. No, I’m not disappointed in Phil.”
Kessel’s biggest struggles have arguably come in the defensive zone, something that has come to light during his goal drought. He’s gone minus-8 during that 10-game stretch and is a team-worst minus-22 on the season.
That prompted a line shakeup that had Kessel skating alongside Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb, a pair of forwards who started the season in the AHL.
“We’re not singling him out or anything like that,” said Wilson. “He’s not scoring. We’re trying to shake things up a little bit, put him with different people who have been successful over the last month.
“(He needs) to just forget about scoring goals and make sure he’s helping us get pucks out of our zone and that he’s backchecking with the same passion that everybody else is.”
The attention generated by the comments is something the soft-spoken Kessel is uncomfortable with. Tyler Bozak, one of his closest friends on the team, cringed when he saw a television clip of Kessel’s interview on Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve seen a lot of media stuff with him before where he scurries out of the scrum underneath the cameras and stuff like that,” said Bozak. “It’s funny and we crack jokes about it. When I saw it yesterday, I was laughing a bit because I know he didn’t mean what it kind of sounded like on TV and what everyone might have taken from it.”
Other teammates understand that it’s just part of playing for the Maple Leafs.
“You’re playing in this market, it comes with the territory,” said defenceman Luke Schenn. “Personally, I guess I’ve been around for just a couple years now, but you kind of get used to it and get adjusted to it. … I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else now. It’s exciting to come to the rink every day.
“Sometimes there is a story about nothing, but I guess everyone still cares about you.”
Kessel is a reluctant interview at the best of times and this situation likely won’t encourage him to speak with reporters more often.
He had a long session after Monday’s morning skate to clear the air but hinted that it won’t start a new trend.
“I know I don’t talk to you guys that often,” said Kessel. “But I think we talk enough, right?”