Leafs/Fans Remain Under Kessel’s Spell

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 9) — It’s rather incredible what the “best player” on a popular team can get away with. Particularly, if he’s wearing a Maple Leafs jersey the past five months. Two coaches — one fired; the other to be replaced before next season. Both turning the cheek with Phil Kessel. Neither willing to confront the central issue on the hockey club.

And, the fans that hold the Maple Leafs to the puniest of standards year after year? Also willing to look elsewhere. As one might easily predict.

If you follow this corner, you’ll know that I generally admire what Kessel has brought to the Maple Leafs since the contentious trade with Boston in September 2009. He is paid to score goals, which he did on an average of 35.3 occasions in three full seasons prior to this one. He added 20 goals in the 48–game lockout–abbreviated schedule two years ago. I do not, however, admire anything that Kessel has brought to the table since 2014 became 2015. And, quite frankly, neither should you.

When the Leafs most needed their big–money man up front, he disappeared — nearly without a trace. All of that talent and five measly goals in 28 games since Jan. 2. There is no excuse. Nor should Kessel be reasonably compared to other players on the team. Not with a $10 million salary and $8 million cap hit. Those numbers compel a professional athlete to not only show up and compete on most nights, but to lead the way. I understand — as you do — that Kessel couldn’t lead a starving man into a grocery store. In paying such a premium for that, the Leafs are at fault. But it still doesn’t rationalize Kessel’s glaring lack of effort and commitment during two of the worst months in franchise history. Rather than attempting to rise above the pack, he has been willing — it seems — to equal the lowest common denominator.

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THIS IS A SEASON THAT PHIL KESSEL CANNOT BE PROUD OF. TORONTO STAR PHOTO

The way Kessel performed on Saturday night was nearly criminal. What should have been an ardent demonstration on home ice against St. Louis — one of the best teams in the National Hockey League — became just another in a string of embarrassing no–shows. After selfishly trying to enter the Blues zone one against four in the first period (with a predictable result), No. 81 took the rest of the game off. As Glenn Healy pointed out on Hockey Night In Canada when a camera showed Kessel on the Leafs bench: “At least we know he’s in uniform.”

Sadly for Fast Phil, his body language speaks volumes. When he’s “not into it” — which has been the case in virtually every game since early January — kinetics prevail. He moves without urgency, particularly behind center–ice. He staggers to the bench shaking his head, apparently wondering why the hockey Gods haven’t rewarded him for sweat and toil. If a leader is to be followed, it’s no wonder the rest of the Leafs have fared so dreadfully. Their most gifted teammate either cannot — or will not — show the way. Even periodically. I think it’s Door No. 2.

Thus, my use of the word “criminal.”

This began in the pre–season, when Randy Carlyle sanctioned Kessel’s apparent need to be “treated differently.” It continues in Carlyle’s wake with Peter Horachek waving an iron fist at everyone but his best player. Nazem Kadri sits tonight against the New York Islanders for missing a team pow–wow yesterday morning. Fair enough. A justifiable penalty. Yet the interim coach repeatedly undermines himself by sending Kessel over the boards — shift after lousy shift. And, allowing him to dress — game after lousy game. I can guarantee the players are far more in–tuned to Horachek’s soft–soap treatment of Kessel than impressed by his acute reaction to Kadri’s mistake. One is the face of the team; the other, a work forever in progress. All players must be held accountable for a coach to earn respect. Horachek seems incapable of such balance.

As for Leaf followers? Well, there appears to be two factions — one that has grown entirely indifferent toward Kessel (“Who cares? He’s gone after this year and will be someone else’s problem”) and another that prefers to look elsewhere (“no one on the team is playing well; why come down on poor Phil?”). Neither sentiment is productive, though the latter is monstrously typical of ever–forgiving hockey zealots in this city.

Just another day around the Blue and White.

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5 comments on “Leafs/Fans Remain Under Kessel’s Spell

  1. Phil is paid to score goals. He plays with Bozak.

    He hits a little bit of a cold streak. That is no reason to throw him under the bus. You can be sure he will return to his 35 goal pace. It just won’t be in Toronto.

    Everyone is way too hard on the guy because he lacks social skills.

  2. I agree with your assessment of Phil. The team in most cases takes on the persona of its best player & it is no more truer than with this Leaf team. I really do believe his days in a Leafs jersey are numbered…need to get assets back, just can’t giveaway. There is really no reason to keep him on this team to affect the thinking of the young players going forward. He needs to go on a team that will knock him upside the head & maybe he will reach his full potential or NOT. It will be a really interesting off-season like no other in Leafland.

  3. “Kessel couldn’t lead a starving man into a grocery store”
    Priceless. A brilliant description.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your description of him, but I believe that he really DOES lead/set the tone for the entire team. There is abundant evidence that blue and white disease is alive and well. I take the position that a whole bunch of these players firmly believe they are better than their stats and game results and are therefore infected. I also think they feel hard done by from the fans who just won’t accept that they are better than they look.
    They see PK delivering an indifferent performance (all season) then they simply do the same because the highest paid is expected to be the highest performing thus they live up (or down) to the example.
    I wonder if the leafs PR machine will crank it up again this coming season and “report” that Phil is (among the) the fittest in training camp again? I call BS on that whole load and just about everything else this operation has tried to sell since about 1995.

  4. I agree howard.
    I continue to say bring back Eakins these are his kids let him get them on track also time to get Doug Gilmour in as asst. coach and mentor

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