You knew when Brian Burke accepted the job as the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs that he wasn't going to waste much time putting his own unique "stamp" on the team. He has a philosophy that a good hockey team should be comprised of 2 highly skilled lines, and 2 gritty lines that are capable of doling out physical punishment. He has been busy working the phones, acquiring gritty players like Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, and Garnet Exelby. However, Leafs fans were waiting for him to pull the trigger on a deal to acquire some more skill up front, a superstar that could help fill the void that has been gaping since the departure of Mats Sundin. Well, Burke finally pulled the trigger, acquiring Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins. Kessel had 36 goals and 60 points last year with the Bruins, his best season of his 3 year career. However, does his potential live up to the steep price (2 first round picks, and a second round pick) that Burke had to give up to get him, and the $27 million he will earn over the next five years?
Many are skeptical that Kessel will be a dominant force to live up to the huge expectations that will come with earning that kind of money, particularly in a hockey mad market like Toronto. In Boston last season he played alongside Marc Savard and Milan Lucic and the trio comprised one of the best lines in the league. However, Kessel's doubters point out that Kessel's 36 goal total was due in large part to playing with one of the best passers in the league in Savard, and because he enjoyed the protection of one of the league's toughest power forwards in Lucic.
Those doubters have a very valid point, particularly in light of the fact that Kessel won't have a whole lot of help on the offensive side of the puck in Toronto. Not only did he have Savard and Lucic to play with in Boston, but the Bs had so many other talented forwards that opposing teams were forced to deploy their best defensive assets against multiple lines, allowing Kessel a little more room to utilize his speed and skill. Playing in Toronto he'll have no such luxury, and he can look forward to facing opposing teams' best checking line and their top defensive pairing night in and night out.
Against such odds it is hard to imagine his goal total going up this season, and if Kessel doesn't score he certainly won't come close to earning the large paycheck he will collect. He is one of the softest players in the league, throwing a body check once every February 29th. His defensive game is tantamount to Colton Orr's scoring prowess, so you can forget about seeing him on the penalty kill.
Kessel better score early and often if he wants to survive in Toronto. If he doesn't have a big offensive impact in his first 10 games fans and media alike will be all over him and getting caught in that pressure cooker might have a negative impact that will start a downward spiral that could make the whole season a write-off.
All that being said, Kessel does have world class skill. He has a deadly shot combined with world class acceleration and a quick pair of hands. He can fire a shot at full velocity even in traffic, and his small size and escapability allows him to elude opposing teams' larger slower defenders on a nightly basis.
As I stated above it is key that Kessel get off to a fast start in Toronto. He, like most other players, thrives when he is playing with confidence. If he can get a few pucks in early he will quickly become a media darling rather than a scapegoat, and his time in Toronto will be a whole heck of a lot more comfortable. Will he ultimately be worth 3 picks and $27 million? Only time will tell. I believe he has the potential to be a 50 goal scorer in this league, but that has been said about a lot of players who never amounted to anything at the NHL level. One thing is for sure, whether it is positive or negative you can expect to hear plenty about Phil Kessel in the Toronto media in the years to come.
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