Will Kessel Ever Earn the Respect of Leafs Nation?

What does Toronto Maple Leafs’ star Phil Kessel have to do to achieve the same level of admiration from Leafs fans accorded to former Toronto greats of the post-expansion era?

Kessel recently cracked the 30-goal plateau for the fifth time in six seasons and is on pace to reach 40 goals for the first time in his career. He would be the first Leaf to score 40 goals since Mats Sundin back in 2001-02. For the fifth straight year he’s the Leafs’ leading scorer. For the third third straight season he’s among the NHL’s top-ten scorers.

Once derided as an one-dimensional player, Kessel in recent years has improved the defensive side of his game. After struggling for years against the Boston Bruins, the club where he began his NHL career, Kessel finally broke through against them in last year’s playoffs, receiving well-earned praise in the process.

Phil Kessel is the Leafs franchise player, but doesn't get the appreciation he deserves.

Phil Kessel is the Leafs franchise player, but doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves.

For all his accomplishments to date, Kessel is still considered over-rated by some denizens of Leafs Nation. They complain he’s a streaky scorer or not physical enough. When the Leafs re-signed him earlier this season to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension he was considered overpaid, even though he would’ve received as much, if not more, from other clubs on this summer’s open market.

I can understand the criticism some Leafs fans have toward team captain Dion Phaneuf. Though a very good defenseman, Phaneuf has never played up to the early-career hype projecting him as a future Norris Trophy winner. He probably never will. In a fair and perfect world the Leafs wouldn’t have re-signed Phaneuf to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension.

Kessel, on the other hand, is an elite player, whose offensive stats should have the fans and pundits in hockey-mad Toronto singing his praises. His performance to date ranks among the best Leafs forwards of the post-expansion era. He’s worthy of the same praise as Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour.

Instead, Kessel is getting the same damp enthusiasm from Leafs Nation which former captain Mats Sundin used to get in his playing days. Sure, Sundin is beloved and well-remembered now, but during his heyday his praises were never sung as loudly as Darryl’s and Lanny’s and Wendel’s and Dougie’s.

Is it because Kessel, like Sundin, isn’t a “good Canadian boy?” Or better yet, a “good Ontario boy?” There’s probably some Leafs fan who share the Don Cherry fantasy that the only good Leafs team is one filled with Canadian players, preferably as many from Ontario (or better yet, “Trannah”) as possible, but most Leafs fans aren’t xenophobes.

Perhaps it’s because Kessel, like Sundin, isn’t overly demonstrative or emotional. Indeed, Kessel is so reserved he makes Sundin look like a raving maniac. At least Sundin was willing to speak to the press, a task Kessel appears to equate with dental surgery. That would certainly explain much of the grousing from the local media.

Kessel’s constant improvement renders the argument he’s one-dimensional irrelevant. He won’t become Pavel Datsyuk but at least he’s working to better his overall game. Besides, Kessels’ defensive play isn’t the reason former Leafs GM Brian Burke parted with two first round picks to acquire Kessel. He was brought in to score, and since the name of the game remains putting more pucks in the opponent’s net than in yours, Kessel has more than met expectations.

Once upon a time I was among those who chided, even mocked, Burke for giving up two first rounders to Boston for Kessel. Not anymore. I have no problem admitting I was wrong. Sure, we can still debate if the Bruins over the long run won that trade, especially after they shipped Tyler Seguin to Dallas for a return which includes promising winger Reilly Smith, but acquiring Kessel worked out far better for the Leafs than Burke’s critics imagined.

Perhaps it’ll take Kessel helping the Leafs finally end their long Stanley Cup drought to get the respect and admiration he deserves. That’s something Sittler, McDonald, Clark, Gilmour and Sundin never did in their respective tenures in Toronto.

Of course Kessel can’t do it on his own. He’s not an otherworldly superstar. His supporting cast has improved since his early days with the Leafs and current GM Dave Nonis continues to work on surrounding his franchise player with a deeper roster.  That’s right, I said franchise player. Kessel is the Leafs franchise player. Really, who else is better qualified? Phaneuf? James van Riemsdyk? Joffrey Lupul? Jonathan Bernier? Nazem Kadri? They’re good players but not on the same level as Kessel. Not by a long shot.

Every player, no matter how great, will always have some detractors. Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos currently have their fair share. I don’t expect all Leafs fans to prostrate themselves before the alter of Kessel. There’s nothing wrong with fair criticism.

In Kessel’s case, however, much of it certainly doesn’t seem fair or justified. How a forward who leads his team in scoring five straight years, scores 30-plus goals five out of six years (and he wouldn’t done it again last season if it weren’t for the NHL lockout) and sits among the league’s top scorers three straight years can be considered “over-rated” is a baseless complaint. Especially when you consider he’s done it without a true first-line center.

It could take time and perhaps a Stanley Cup championship for Kessel to finally garner the respect he deserves from Leafs Nation. Perhaps, like Sundin, that respect will only come after he’s retired. That would be a shame.

I’m not a Leafs fan, but I would love to have Phil Kessel on my team. That’s the highest compliment I can give an NHL player.

8 Comments

  1. Truer words have never been spoken. Leafs aren’t my number one team but being a GTA boy and hockey fan you have to follow them to some degree and I am amoung the minority that didn’t think the Kessel trade was a bad one. Kessel has continued to prove it, not only is he the Leafs franchise player I would argue he is one of the top 5 American Forwards playing the game (Kane, Kessel, Parise, Ryan, Brown). You could probably make a strong argument for him being one of the top wingers in the game, seriously not that many you consider before him, what Kane, Perry, Ovechkin, Zetterberg?

    Kessel is an amazing player and if I were Leafs nation I would be happy to have him locked up for a long term deal. His play allows the Leafs to operate at a high level with centers like Bozak & Kadri, good but not #1’s. With a solid scoring franchise guy like Kessel and a hard nosed power forward like JVR if the Leafs ever get a #1 center they will be laughing and the praises for Kessel will never stop.

  2. My problem with Kessel is the inconsistency in his effort. When he decides he wants to work hard he is undoubtedly one of the best players in hockey but the problem is he still goes through long stretches of 10 or more games where he seems to completely stop trying. There is doubt in mind Kessel has talent to be a 50 goal scorer but he will never come close to reaching that plateau because he isn’t willing to put in the effort for 82 full games.

    • Nice write up. I wonder what made you write it. If anything I think he’s quite underrated which is fine by me and I’d bet with him too.

      Brad you’re exactly whom this article speaks of. You say he’s inconsistent but at 30+ goals a year for the past 5yrs…I mean, can you really say someone that consistently does that year after year really be called inconsistent?

      I bet you too also argued Sundin wouldn’t make first ballot in for the HHOF, right? Or did you not even think he got in?

      The problem with Toronto fans is they can’t tell when they have a star player and when they don’t because star players make the tsn top 10 or whatever highlight show they watch to gauge who/what is a star player.

  3. Random thoughts-
    “Kessel is so reserved he makes Sundin look like a raving maniac.” – Hilarious! I live in St. Louis, and was a big Gilmour fan when he was here. I never paid attention to the Leafs until he was traded there. Since then, they’ve been my favorite team, regardless of how bad they may suck. While Gilmour will always be my favorite Leaf, along with Roberts and Clark, (yes because of their mixture of fire and skill) I thought Sundin was awesome. Kessel took some getting used to but the kid is a scoring machine. For that matter, can we cut Bozak some slcak too? Not my choice for a first line center but he produces. That first line is always dangerous.

    I’m still waiting on a Leaf headline to read “Fear Of The Bozak.”

  4. Thanks for the excellent write up on Kessel.He is like poetry in motion when he is on his game

  5. There are some in Leaf nation who will never give Kessel his due, mostly (as silly as it is) because he doesn’t fight. This is the same minority who underappreciated Sundin’s contributions to the team. That being said, many (hopefully, most) Leaf fans realize how lucky they are to have this supreme talent on their team. The number of fans in the latter group continues to grow with the improvement in Kessel’s overall game, with every clutch goal he scores, and with every season he snipes over 30 goals. I don’t think it will be long before he notches 50 in a season, and if the team is also having success, only the most hardcore knuckledraggers won’t be on the Kessel bandwagon by then. I really hope he stays healthy, because that will mean current Leaf fans will get to enjoy watching him become one of the team’s all time greats.

    The loudest and/or most controversial voices often get the most attention; it’s not because they offer the best analysis.

  6. Personally, I am starting to really enjoy his lack of demonstrativeness. (Is that a word?) He scores a clutch goal, barely cracks a smile, barely can lift his arm for the fist bumps, then drags his ass back to the bench where he proceeds to lean over like his like he’s going to vomit. “Classic Kessel”.

  7. The” Phil”is worth every nickel he earns and then some and he’s only going to get better. The “Phil” will crack the 40 goal barrier at least once in his playing career and might even do 50 goals ONCE in his career. He’s learned the value of playing 200′ of ice and can often been seeing skating like the wind to come back and back check when the likes of Gardiner and Franson have long since got caught out of position and said..”who cares”?

    Oh ya you Kessel haters…just keep it up..but when the “Phil” eventually scores that game winning Stanley Cup winning goal..and trust me, If anybody wants to do that its the ” Phil”, you bandwagon fans will be bruising his backside with accolades. Yes the team is not yet ready to do that just yet, but they’re not the far off either..

    Kessel will score that goal and Bozak will assist on it..Coming to a 7 game final just for you Kessel haters sometime in the next few years