Hot Kessel riding a wave of cool

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.

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Remember the player draft for the 2011 All-Star game in Raleigh?

Remember how Phil Kessel was picked last?

Two things about that:

First, do you remember how good he was about it, how he donated the $20,000 consolation prize to a Cancer charity and laughed off what was clearly an excruciating moment where he was last pick among 42 all-stars.

Anyone, anyone who was the last pick on the playground, not an uncommon bitter memory among sportswriters by the way, would have shuddered. I would have considered therapy.

“Something good (comes out of it),” Kessel said. “Obviously,$20,000 to charity, that’s unbelievable. I’m real excited about that.”

Second: The Sochi Olympics have scuttled this year’s event but where do you think Phil Kessel would have gone in the draft this time around?

Phil Kessel is riding a wave of cool. The guy remains the same. The player is getting better.

One of the top 10 offensive players in hockey has been playing his keister off under our noses. It’s time to give Phil Kessel his due. Right now Phil Kessel is tied for fourth place among goal scorers with Sidney Crosby who is, you know, pretty good.

Impossible to ignore on the ice, Kessel has little time for building his brand. His Twitter feed points to a guy who wishes everybody a Merry Christmas. “Happy to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for the next eight years,” he tweeted when he signed his new contract extension. Eight years, $64 million.

Really? Happy?

Kessel is a notoriously laconic interview who when called upon delivers an uninspiring few seconds of tape.

But the guy behind the dressing room door is, to all reports, a bit of a live wire.

“He’s great with us,” said David Clarkson. “He’s been one of the guys who has impressed me the most as a teammate.”

“Great in the room,” reports Carl Gunnarsson.

Not to bad on the ice, either.

Let’s see: sixth in goals in 11/12, 13th in 12/13, fourth this season.

Quick: who is the current Leafs iron man for consecutive games? That would be Phil Kessel with 336. I know, the words ‘on-pace-for’ are fools gold but let’s say Phil Kessel averaged 75 games played for the rest of the eight seasons in which he is under contract to the Leafs. Indulge me.

That’s 964 games. That would put him seventh overall, a handful behind Mats Sundin. That’s not bad for a franchise nearing 100 years of doing business.

Kessel is hunting his third straight season in the top 10 in league point getters. No Leaf has managed that since Darryl Sittler reeled off his fifth season in the top 10 in 1980. For those of you keeping score, that’ s seven years before Phil Kessel was born.

He has 13 goals and 21 points in 22 playoff games. He doesn’t take stupid penalties.

He makes the players around him better. Kessel has drawn an assist on half of James van Riemsdyk’s goals.

He is clutch. Thirteen of his 27 goals gave the Leafs the lead. He scores as much at home as he does on the road. Twenty of his goals have come five on five. Alex Ovechkin, the league’s runaway leader in goals with 36 has scored three more even strength goals than Phil Kessel. They have both scored 13 times on the road.

You can make an argument that Kessel’s defensive play is mediocre. He is a minus player, but his minus five is 15 points better than his rookie season with the Leafs. Ovechkin is minus 13 and while there are plenty of players with gaudy plus minus numbers, (Hello Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Kunitz at plus 25), plus minus speaks to the quality of the club at least as much as it does the player. The worst you can say is that he is improving. Randy Carlyle demanded more stop and start and less fly by and Kessel has delivered.

He scores off the rush, he scores in traffic, he scores with astonishing speed as he did when he tied the game against Winnipeg Saturday with 1:43 left to play with a goal a handful of NHLers could conceive of, let alone execute.

Of the 300 forwards working in the NHL, he is in or very near the top 10. Seems to me he is talking loud and clear.

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 208 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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