Two years after being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Phil Kessel appears poised for NHL superstardom.
Entering the first full week of December, the top twenty players of the NHL scoring race contains an interesting mix of surprises.
Among those we’d expect to see as the league’s best scorers (Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Nicklas Backstrom, Thomas Vanek and Anze Kopitar) are emerging stars (Claude Giroux, Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle) an aging veteran (Ryan Smyth), a hotshot rookie (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and those once perceived as under-achievers (Joffrey Lupul, James Neal Kris Versteeg) who have regained their offensive touch.
Topping the list, however, was a player whom many observers prior to this season wrote off as a streaky scorer, whose potential for superstardom seemed dim, playing in a market whose fans rarely seemed to fully appreciate him, to the point of wishing the trade made for him never happened.
Since early-October, Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel has led the individual points race, as well as the goals-scoring race.
In those opening weeks, few took seriously Kessel’s offensive dominance. It was widely anticipated the 24-year-old would suffer his usual late-autumn slowdown at some point in November, and would tumble out of the lead of those respective races.
He doesn’t have a wide lead in those categories; as of December 3rd, he was only point up on Giroux, while Stamkos and Ottawa’s Milan Michalek had tied him for the goal-scoring lead.
Still, there’s been little indication Kessel is hitting a cold streak. Heading into December, he’d been held scoreless only five times, twice in October, three times in November.
One reason for Kessel’s improvement is, for the first time since joining the Leafs, he’s got a quality linemate to work with , as he and Lupul have been an offensive dynamic duo.
The pair are so far providing Leafs fans with the kind of offensive excitement last seen when Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk were in their prime in the early 1990s.
That’s not to diminish Kessel’s accomplishments so far this season. It serves to highlight the importance of a scoring star having quality linemates to receive his passes and cash in on his rebounds.
Another reason is Kessel’s natural skills – his speed and quick, accurate shot – appear to have improved this season. He’s in motion much more compared to last season, while his shots appear to have more zip.
Kessel’s performance has also been a significant reason why the injury-ravaged Leafs, at one point in mid-November missing seven regulars, were able to remain among the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Another indicator of how much Kessel has improved is he’s currently leading in fan votes for the 2012 All-Star Game, over such luminaries as Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Sidney Crosby. He’s finally garnering the appreciation of NHL fans.
The Globe and Mail recently noted his offensive numbers have improved while he’s been lauded for his commitment to his defensive game this season.
Leafs fans lamenting the trade with the Boston Bruins that brought him to Toronto (at the cost of two first round picks, one of which turned into sophomore scoring star Tyler Seguin) have been silent on the subject now.
For the first time, Leafs Nation is allowing itself to admit “The Kessel Trade” maybe wasn’t so bad after all.
For the record, that also includes me.While not a Leafs fan, I was very critical of this trade when it went down, and in the following two seasons continued to believe Leafs GM Brian Burke gave up too much for Kessel.
If he continues his strong play over the course of this season, however, I’ll have no problem eating crow. It’s good to see Kessel has matured, improved, risen to the challenges, and become a leader in arguably the NHL’s most demanding market.
Kessel’s performance in the first quarter of this season – leading in goals and points, improving his overall game, his role in the resurgence of Lupul, and maintaining that high standard when the club was riddled with injuries – has in my opinion made him an early favorite for the Hart Trophy.
The last Maple Leaf to win the Hart was Ted “Teeder” Kennedy in 1954-55. The last Leaf to be a finalist for the trophy was Gilmour, in 1992-93. No Leaf player has ever won the Art Ross trophy, for most points in a season, or the Rocket Richard trophy, for most goals-scored in a season.
Kessel, currently on pace for 52 goals and 104 points, has the opportunity to win all three.
Of course, it’s a long season, and Kessel will be hard-pressed to remain atop the goal and points lead. Opponents will focus upon him more than ever. Injuries could become a factor, as could a slump in production.
Experienced, established stars the Sedins, Stamkos, Kane or Toews, or another rising star like Giroux, or Sidney Crosby, off to a quick start after recently returned from a concussion, pose a serious challenge. All have the skills to overtake and surpass him.
But if Kessel should be knocked off his perch in the scoring races, but finished among the top ten or fifteen, it’ll remain a significant achievement in his young career, an indicator of better things to come as he enters his playing prime.
Should Kessel not win any individual awards this season, if his performance can help the Maple Leafs make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, that’ll be reward enough for him.
At the very least, he won’t be picked last for this season’s All-Star game.