We all know Phil Kessel is a wonderfully gifted offensive player. But until he starts really producing in the clutch, he’ll be remembered as the Mike Gartner of the 21st century.
In the last moments of his last news conference at the Sochi Olympics, Canadian coach Mike Babcock had the following observation: “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See ya.”
And with that he left for the closing ceremonies, having coached Canada to its second straight gold medal. It bears mentioning that most of us still remember who won the scoring championship in Sochi. Phil Kessel had five goals and eight points for Team USA, finding the back of the net more often than Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Marleau, Martin St-Louis, Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares, Matt Duchene and Chris Kunitz combined.
Which brings us to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fact that the only remaining ritual when it comes to their playoff hopes is throwing dirt on them. After an impressive 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings March 13, the Maple Leafs were second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. The recent tailspin that has seen them drop to 10th, making their 18-wheeler-off-a-cliff collapse of two years ago look like a fender bender.
Now there are a whole host of reasons why the Maple Leafs find themselves in this position, the most prominent of which is they can’t/don’t grasp the concept that hockey is now a puck-possession game. They’re too small on the wings and instead of using their speed and explosiveness to continue to push the pace against teams, they often fall back into a defensive posture. That’s fine if you have players who can play that way, but the Leafs clearly don’t and they’re getting burned for it.
That’s on coach Randy Carlyle. But how much of this is on Kessel? Things were looking so encouraging last spring, despite the Leafs collapse in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. With 4-2-6 totals in the seven game series, it looked as though Kessel was making enormous strides to becoming the big-game player the Maple Leafs need him to be if they’re going to ultimately be successful. He was terrific in all areas of the ice.
But now, again, there’s this nagging feeling that you can’t really rely on Kessel at the most important times. Going into the semifinal against Canada in the Olympics, Kessel had five goals, eight points and 21 shots. But he was ineffective in the semifinal (four shots) and downright AWOL in the bronze medal game. And there are veterans on that team that are now privately grumbling that both Kessel and James van Riemsdyk didn’t exactly raise their level of play in the games that mattered most.
From the time the Maple Leafs inexorably tied their fortunes to Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, your trusty correspondent has been skeptical that either of them has the makeup to be the kind of player who carries his teammates on his back. Since leading the Leafs to a 3-1 win on the road over the Anaheim Ducks March 10 with a goal and two assists, Kessel has exactly three goals in 13 games. During the 1-9-1 stretch two years ago during which the Leafs fell to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, Kessel also had three goals. (Full disclosure: Kessel also had eight assists for a point-per-game output.)
Which brings us to the following crucial question. Has Phil Kessel ever given you reason to believe that he’s the kind of player who is capable of carrying a team for a long stretch and be that player who singlehandedly elevates his team? Perhaps on occasion, but not enough.
Now Kessel is a wonderful player who can score 30 goals just by showing up at the rink, but is anybody going to remember this season as the one where Kessel (possibly?) scored 40 goals and finished in the top five in NHL scoring? Who would you rather have leading your team right now, Kessel or Claude Giroux?
The point is, Kessel is not a classic leader. Neither is Phaneuf, for that matter, despite the fact he is the captain. They are great secondary players who, like Mike Modano before them, needed a veteran presence around him in order to succeed. The Leafs have failed in doing that so far, thinking they might have had that kind of player in David Clarkson. As far as the rest of the roster is concerned, good luck finding that guy among the forwards the Leafs have now. Some people look at Nazem Kadri and see a future scoring star. I look at him and see Mike Ribeiro.
The numbers brigade will point to factors such as offensive zone starts and the shooting percentage of teammates and there is merit to that, but at some point you just want to see the stars be the absolute best players on the ice in all zones for a considerable period of time. Phil Kessel has not done that. And until he does, the Maple Leafs will continue to spin their wheels.