TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs might finally get a look at the player who is expected to spearhead the franchise’s turnaround.
Phil Kessel skated as part of a line at practice Monday and will likely play his first game in blue and white against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET).
The team wasn’t planning to release the results of an examination on Kessel’s injured shoulder until Tuesday’s morning skate, but everyone involved seemed to expect the 22-year-old to be in the lineup against Tampa.
It’s an opportunity he’s been anxiously waiting for.
“If I play, I’m going to be pretty excited,” Kessel said Monday.
This will be no ordinary debut.
Leafs GM Brian Burke had to surrender three top draft picks – a first-and second-rounder in 2010 and a first-rounder in 2011 – to bring Kessel over from Boston in September.
Not only is he expected to be one of the Leafs’ top players, he’s joining a team that has just one victory in 12 games so far. Kessel believes he’s ready to deal with the expectations.
“There’s always pressure when you play hockey,” he said. “You don’t feel it (because of the draft picks he was traded for), you just feel it because you want to help the team win, get in the playoffs or at least compete for a playoff spot. I think we’ve been playing better the last four or five games here, so I think things are starting to turn around.”
Kessel is going to be counted on to help expedite that turnaround by becoming an offensive catalyst for the team.
He scored 36 goals for the Bruins last season while skating alongside talented playmaker Marc Savard. Even though the Leafs can’t give him that kind of linemate – he was paired with Matt Stajan and Jason Blake during Monday’s practice – Kessel doesn’t expect his production to dip in Toronto.
“Obviously, (Savard’s) a good player, he passed me the puck a lot,” said Kessel. “But I’m not too worried. I’ve done it before without him other places. I enjoyed playing with him, but I think playing with Stajan and Blake won’t make much of a difference to tell you the truth.”
Stajan is looking forward to the chance to play with No. 81. He doesn’t expect it to be very tough to develop some chemistry.
“Well, we know that he can score goals,” said Stajan. “I’m just going to go out there and play the way I do. I know he’s going to find the holes and the soft spots where we can get him the puck and hopefully he’ll be able to bury them like he has in the past.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson doesn’t think the most difficult part of his transition will come from the fact he missed training camp and sat out the first month of the season.
Instead, he believes the biggest adjustment will be getting used to being a Maple Leaf.
“Remember he’s playing on a new team with completely different teammates and a different style of play than he was used to with the Bruins,” said Wilson. “I think I’m more concerned with that than with his overcoming an injury. If he had this surgery and was still in Boston and he’s going to step on the ice with guys he’s more familiar with, it would be easier than here.”
He should get plenty of opportunity.
There’s no plan to ease Kessel into the lineup once he’s cleared to play. It sounds like he’ll be given plenty of ice time right from the get-go.
“When I see him bent over huffing and puffing I’ll give him a rest,” said Wilson. “If he feels capable of playing a lot of minutes I will.”
Even though the Leafs remain dead last in the NHL, there seems to be some optimism in the dressing room. The team earned points in its final four games of a recent five-game road trip and has been playing better hockey of late.
On Monday, Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle was recognized as the NHL’s top player of the week – something no player on the team managed to do last season.
Ironically, Kaberle was rumoured to be a player the Leafs were willing to send to Boston in exchange for Kessel during the off-season. Toronto’s longest-serving player is excited that he’s still around to witness Kessel’s debut first-hand.
“My buddy called me and said, ‘It looked for a second like you were going to Boston’ and then it didn’t happen,” recalled Kaberle. “But it’s something that’s part of the game, you never know. Obviously I’m happy here. Whatever happens, happens. Things happen for a reason, I’m happy I stayed.”
Kessel is just as excited to get on with the next phase of his career in a new city.
Stajan hopes the fans are patient with the team’s newest player.
“Hopefully he doesn’t get the pressure from people,” said Stajan. “I know as a team we’re not doing that to him. We’re going to help ease him in and hopefully he can just do what he does best.”