Phil Kessel proving he wasn’t the problem in Toronto

The much-maligned Phil Kessel of Madison, Wisconsin, is proving his many critics wrong by showing that he’s truly an elite NHL player during the current postseason. Kessel, who was more or less run out of Toronto by “Leafs Nation,” could potentially be a Conn Smythe candidate this season if he and the Pittsburgh Penguins can keep it up. After 16 playoff games this season he had eight goals and nine assists for 17 points, was a plus-5, and sat at number three in the scoring race just two points behind the leader. That’s nothing new for the speedy right-winger though as he now has 21 goals and 17 assists in 38 career postseason outings.

Kessel had a good, but not great season in 2015/16 with his 26 goals and 33 assists, but that could have been expected as he spent the first half of the campaign getting used to a new set of teammates and coaches. However, he did his part by helping the Penguins to a solid record of 48-28-8 and was a plus-9.  Once all parties became used to each other, both Kessel and the Penguins finished the year on a high note as being one of the hottest players and teams in the league. The only Penguins who produced more than Kessel’s 59 points this year were Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The 29-year-old, who started his career with the Boston Bruins in 2006/07 after being drafted fifth overall, was eventually acquired by Toronto in 2009 because of his goal scoring talent. He didn’t let anybody down as he was the club’s best player and leading scorer for the next six seasons. He also shone in his one playoff performance by leading the squad with six points in four postseason games. But in typical Leafs fashion they blew a 4-1 lead over Boston in game seven of their first-round series with just 10 minutes to go and lost 5-4 in overtime.

As Toronto fans often do, they looked for a scapegoat and somehow Kessel fit the bill. He was brought in to score goals and score goals he did. But as an added bonus, he also showed what a fine playmaker he is. For some reason, Kessel was labeled as being lazy and blamed for five decades of Maple Leafs’ ineptness. The man isn’t a leader, has never proclaimed himself to be, and probably never will be, but the fans’ anger for Toronto’s half-century Stanley Cup drought fell directly into his lap. All he did in Toronto was his job, and he did it well while shying away from the spotlight whenever possible. He was also the team’s iron man as he didn’t miss a game for in his final five years in Toronto.

Most Leafs’ fans didn’t appreciate Kessel, but they’re now looking to replace him with a goal scorer to solve their problems and are hoping Steve Stamkos will be the answer. They already had one of the league’s best scorers and playmakers in Kessel though and didn’t have a clue how to treat him. There’s no doubt the shy testicular-cancer survivor Kessel prefers to let his on-ice play do his talking while others bask in the spotlight since he’s generally not comfortable with the media. That has worked out well for him in Pittsburgh as he can go about his job while others such as Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang handle the press and post-game interviews.

Kessel also seems to play his best when there isn’t a lot of expectations heaped on him. While he didn’t set the league on fire by skating alongside Crosby or Malkin he fits like a glove with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino and the trio has become one of the league’s best lines. The Leafs had no elite players to play with Kessel and arguably that was for the best. But he’s proven to be a driving force on a good Pittsburgh team when used properly. Leafs’ fans may now wonder who will play on Auston Matthews’ wing next season if they take the young American first overall in the NHL Draft and may regret that it won’t be Kessel. These fans need to realize Kessel didn’t suddenly become a top player overnight. He was a legitimate star in Toronto and only 11 NHL players have scored more goals than him since he broke into the league a decade ago.

Also, from 2011 to 2014, Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers was the one and only player to rack up more points than Kessel. While with the Leafs, Kessel was the fifth-top goal scorer in the league. The winger also has 38 points in 38 career playoff games for a pace of a point point-per game. Granted, he’s played just 38 postseason contests up to now, but his point-producing average in the playoffs is better than players such as Patrick Kane, Paul Coffey, Alexander Ovechkin, Stan Mikita, Rocket Richard, Jaromir Jagr and dozens of other stars.  

Kessel wasn’t good enough for the Leafs and the majority of their fans though and it shows just how incompetent this franchise is. If they couldn’t build a team around a true NHL star such as Kessel what makes them think things will be different if they’re lucky enough to land Stamkos? Of course, the Leafs’ newest savior will now have somebody to play with since the club has a few legitimate prospects after tanking for the last two years. To rub salt into the wounds, the Leafs arguably didn’t get near enough back in value for Kessel and they’re also paying part of his salary.

Trading Kessel may help Toronto in the long run, but he was unfairly blamed for the team’s problems while tearing up the league with the Leafs. Another ex-Leaf, Hall of Fame defenceman Larry Murphy, knows exactly what Kessel is going through. Murphy was also the whipping boy of Leafs’ fans while in Toronto from 1995 to 1997. Even though he scored 100 points in 151 games for the Leafs and had already won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, the experts in the stands deemed he wasn’t good enough for the hapless Leafs. Murphy was also run out of town and then went on to win two more Stanley Cups with Detroit. There’s still a long way to go in these playoffs, but it’s possible Kessel could follow Murphy’s example.