TORONTO – If Phil Kessel keeps this up, he won’t be able to stay out of the spotlight.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger was named the first star for the opening week of the NHL season after scoring five goals and eight points in three games. Notoriously shy, he answered only a handful of questions after receiving the honour Monday morning and largely deflected the praise to his teammates.
Kessel would much rather let his play do the talking.
“I’m just going out there and playing the game and doing whatever it takes to get wins,” he said.
Kessel was the main reason Toronto took a 3-0 record into its game against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night. He had a hat trick during a 6-5 win over Ottawa on Oct. 8 and added two more goals in a 3-2 victory against Calgary over the weekend.
He was selected over New York Islanders forward John Tavares and Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, who were awarded the league’s second and third star, respectively. Tavares had eight points (4-4) in four games while Lehtonen posted a 4-0-0 record with 1.48 goals-against average and .955 save percentage.
“There were some great performances obviously throughout the league, but Phil’s done it in every game so I think it’s deserved,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
Most importantly, Kessel has also contributed defensively and sported a plus-7 rating after three games.
“He looks a lot more committed,” said linemate Joffrey Lupul. “He’s got all the skills and it looks like he really has the determination this year too. That’s great.”
Much of the off-season focus in Toronto surrounded the importance of getting a No. 1 centre to play between Kessel and Lupul. Tim Connolly appeared to be that guy after signing a two-year deal as a free agent, but he’s yet to play after suffering an undisclosed upper-body injury during training camp.
Instead, Tyler Bozak is back in a role he filled a year ago with some mixed results. The unit has been clicking early in 2011-12.
“He’s got a good opportunity and made the most of it,” Lupul said of Bozak.
Wilson has seen a lot more maturity throughout his lineup and Kessel is at the forefront. The 25-year-old tends to be a streaky scorer, which prompted the Leafs coach to start challenging him last year to add other elements to his game.
Now that he’s showing more defensive commitment, Kessel has been rewarded with ice time in the last minute of close games. The next step could even see him start killing penalties.
“It probably came out of the constant discussions that if you’re not scoring what can you do to help the team?” said Wilson. “I’ve told him ‘I’m not going to put you out on the PK unless you’re getting a 200-foot game going.’
“It’s not going to be the cart before the horse. … And that would be getting the job done defensively 5-on-5 and then we’ll think about PK.”
Of course, Kessel’s primary responsibility will continue to be scoring goals.
He surpassed the 30-goal mark each of the last three seasons and has bigger targets in mind. If he manages to break the 40-goal barrier this year, it will come with even more recognition—something everyone inside the Leafs dressing room knows he’d rather avoid.
“What do you get for player of the week? Maybe he just wants to just pass it over our way if it’s all (our doing),” Lupul said with a laugh. “He doesn’t like the spotlight that much. But he definitely deserves it—he’s scored some big goals with some real highlight-reel individual efforts.”