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.
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.