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.
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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