THN in Sochi: Kessel making mark as big-time player

The maturation of Phil Kessel continues. His three goals in Sunday’s game against Slovenia provided another example of how he has evolved as a player, both in terms of the timing of his contributions and his willingness to get out of his comfort zone.

SOCHI – Full disclosure: When the Toronto Maple Leafs made the blockbuster trade to get Phil Kessel in 2009, I thought it was a terrible deal. When they gave him a five-year deal worth $27 million and the draft pick the Maple Leafs gave up ended up being second overall, I thought it was even worse.

My beef with Kessel wasn’t about numbers. Anyone who watches the game knows Kessel could score 25 or 30 goals just by showing up. What I didn’t like about Kessel was that he seemed to refuse to go to the dirty areas, he disappeared at crucial times and didn’t look like the kind of player around whom a franchise could be built.

Brian Burke no longer speaks to me, in part because of how critical I was of the Kessel trade. But I must admit I have come around on Kessel. He has truly matured as a player and is flourishing both in the NHL and on the international stage. A player Ron Wilson could barely use four years ago in Vancouver has emerged as a major offensive weapon, as evidenced by his natural hat trick in USA’s 5-1 win over Slovenia on Sunday.

USA goalie Ryan Miller, who faces Kessel on a regular basis in the NHL, was asked what he thought the biggest difference between Kessel four years ago and now and his response was telling. “I think it’s just awareness of where he can make things happen and where he can’t” Miller said. Translation: Kessel is far more willing to go to the dirty areas to score now.

There was a time when Kessel’s modus operandi would be to scream down the wing and, more often than not, take a shot from the top of the circle that accomplished little. That’s happening less now. Perhaps it has something to do with the big ice and the fact that shots from the circle are even less dangerous than they are in the NHL, but Kessel is driving the net and using his speed and skill to make plays closer to the net.

It’s all a part of the maturation process for the 26-year-old Kessel. Despite playing in a fishbowl and being extremely shy by nature, Kessel is enjoying life in Toronto and clearly wants to be part of some success there. He has certainly matured as a player and seems to have a much better grip on his skill and speed than he had in the past.

“I don’t think it’s just him,” said teammate David Backes. “I’ve been really impressed with the maturity level as people off the ice and as players on the ice. Everyone has had a lot of growth in their personal lives and the poise they’re showing on the ice and he’s no exception. He has shown he can handle the big-time situations and doesn’t get rattled when someone is in his face.”

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Kessel has played most of the tournament with his Maple Leaf linemate James van Riemsdyk on the left wing and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks at center. There has been an instant chemistry with the three, as evidenced by the fact that Pavelski assisted on all three of Kessel’s goals. USA coach Dan Bylsma said Pavelski gives them an excellent offensive player, but also a responsible two-way presence on the line.

“The speed and the shot of the player is elite,” Bylsma said of Kessel. “The speed at which he can accelerate down the ice, when he can put teams in trouble with that speed and finish it up with the shot he has, it’s one of the more dangerous weapons we have. He’s one of our dangerous guys. He’s one of our skill-speed guys. We have grit and determination throughout our lineup, but that’s the kind of speed and skill that we need.”

It might have been an emotional hangover from the thrilling win over Russia 24 hours before or a case of playing down to the level of competition, but the fact is the Americans were not that good on Sunday. Their physical game was all but non-existent and they looked like a team that was content to pick up the two points and get out of the game safely.

The Slovenians, meanwhile, overcame a slow start and showed a lot of gumption despite being overmatched. Their only NHL player, Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar, missed the third period with what looks to be the stomach flu and went to the clinic in the athletes’ village to have some blood work done. Matjaz Kopitar, who is Slovenia’s coach and Anze’s father, said he’s unsure whether his son will be ready for the qualification game on Tuesday.

Still, the elder Kopitar wasn’t pleased with his team, which was coming off its own emotional high after defeating Slovakia on Saturday.

“I think today our teeth were not sharp enough to be competitive with USA,” Matjaz Kopitar said.