Given what he went through roughly a year ago, it’s safe to say this holiday season is going to bring more cheer to Phil Kessel than the last one.
The Boston Bruins center is on pace for a 30-goal season, having scored seven times through 19 games while tossing in five assists.
Those may not seem like gaudy numbers considering Kessel was, as a teenager, often mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby, but they sure represent progress from his rookie season.
When compounded with the fact he was treated for testicular cancer last December, you’d think the chance to simply play in the NHL and score goals is pure gravy.
But that’s not the 20-year-old’s take.
“I don’t really look at it that way,” said Kessel when asked if his battle with cancer brought a different perspective to playing the game. “I just try to look at it as a thing of the past and look to the future.”
Kessel missed nearly a month last season while recovering from surgery, finishing the year with 11 goals and 29 points in 70 games. The sophomore, who undergoes regular medical tests, is pleased with the progress he’s made on the ice.
“I think I’m playing well,” he said. “I think we’ve had a good season so far. I feel more comfortable and I’m just trying to help the team any way I can.”
The most obvious way Kessel aids his team is speed. The Madison, Wis., native has the kind of pace that often makes defenders back off just enough for him to display his hard, accurate wrist shot.
“He’s a fast player and he’s been able to score some pretty goals for us,” said Chuck Kobasew, who’s spent much of the season playing with Kessel and veteran Marco Sturm. “He generates a lot in the offensive end.”
Kessel, who was drafted fifth overall in 2006, was always expected to produce at the NHL level. This is a kid who once popped 176 goals as a 14-year-old bantam player and was a standout with the U.S. National Team Development Program before playing one NCAA season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
At one point he was considered a lock to go first overall, but fell a few spots because some questioned his commitment to becoming a star player.
First-year Bruins coach Claude Julien said Kessel’s challenge is to continue evolving into a player who can be counted on night after night.
“With Phil it’s all about maturity,” Julien mused. “He’s a year older; he knows the league now. There’s still a lot for Phil to learn and improve on, but there’s no doubt he’s making some strides and understanding the game.
“I think in Phil’s case, we know his skill level is there and basically it’s the maturity part of it, understanding he has to come and play every game and he has to be a strong contender every night and in every situation, and that comes with time and you’ve got to allow him that time to get there.”
But intensity and fun don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.
Chances are Kessel will always be a happy hockey player.
“He’s got that smile on all the time,” says Kobasew, “and I just think he enjoys coming to the rink and playing.”