Phil Kessel and the Center Carousel
Phil ‘The Thrill’ Kessel is off to the best start of his career, leading the league in points (16) and tied for the league lead in goals (9) through 9 games.
Leaf nation has always known that Kessel can put up big points though; more impressive is Kessel’s play at both ends of the rink. Brian Burke has referred to Kessel as a 200ft player, praising him on his back-checking and fore-checking.
In the past he was criticized heavily for not playing defense. Kessel was put in the same boat as players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin as players with superb scoring talent that were lazy in their own zone.
If Kessel continues to play with this level of effort and determination there is no reason why he can’t surpass 40 goals, and perhaps silence most of the critics he’s found in Toronto.
With Tim Connolly finally back in the lineup, Kessel will only be aided offensively, having another legitimate scoring threat on his line as well as an elite playmaker. That being said, if Connolly isn’t the answer, it’s not as though Kessel hasn’t rotated centers before.
Phil Kessel’s best friend on the team, Tyler Bozak was again asked to play first line duty. While it became evident that Bozak was not ready for first line pressures and expectations last season, Bozak did not look out of place in between Joffrey Lupul and Kessel from the get go. Bozak displayed competence on both sides of the puck, showcasing his ability to be a defensive forward often picking the pockets of opposing players, but also able to distribute the puck. Bozak looked to silence critics by correcting his plus/minus from a year ago (a scary -29) and now sits at a much healthier +5.
If Connolly and Lombardi miss any significant time it would not be surprising to see Bozak center the top line once again. He has matured as a player, and is playing with confidence. It’s clear he is a much different player than he was a year ago, and should continue to improve into a top 9 player in the NHL.
Acquired in the deal that saw the Leafs shed Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney (who?), Matthew Lombardi has been quite the pleasant surprise this season thus far. A player who wasn’t expected to play at all this season after suffering a concussion resulting in him missing almost the entire season in Nashville, dressed on opening night, and was a factor.
Ron Wilson made sure to slowly incorporate Lombardi into the lineup, playing him mostly on the fourth line in his first game action. When Lombardi displayed he was ready for more he slowly moved up the depth chart and made cameos on the top line.
Something I very much looked forward too when Matthew Lombardi was acquired was the potential for him to be on a line with Phil Kessel. Both known for being speed demons, it was only natural that Lombardi’s wheels would complement Phil’s fast paced game.
Lombardi would see more time on the top line in the absence of Bozak and Connolly, and he did not look overly out of place. Though still feeling his way back into the league, Lombardi made it clear that he intended on making an impact on this roster. Defensively responsible and offensively capable he will most likely, if healthy make contributions on the Power play and Penalty Kill.
If… or when Connolly is injured Lombardi should be able to slot in on the top line with Phil Kessel and Lupul, providing a different look for the top line, and a scary one at that.
Acquired from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a 4th round draft pick in 2012, Steckel was brought to the Leafs in order to fill 2 voids. He adds size to an otherwise smallish top 9, as well; he brings to the team one of the best face off men in the entire league.
Making only brief appearances with Phil Kessel, he won’t often be called on to fill in for top line duty. However he does bring an element of size and faceoff domination that Kessel is not used to playing with. He’s been used sparingly on the power play to establish zone time with a faceoff win, and made appearances in overtime for the same reason.
Don’t expect to see Steckel with Kessel too often, but when he does, know that he’s likely going to win the faceoff and head straight for the bench.
Signed as a free agent by Brian Burke, the former Buffalo Sabre was brought in specifically to be Phil Kessel’s center. A player with an elite passing ability and vision, Connolly will spend most if not all his offensive ice time with sniper Phil. Despite having bones of glass (despite many will argue that’s not a fair assessment) Connolly appears to finally be healthy. Debuting against the New York Rangers, slotted between Kessel and Lupul, Tim was not babied into the lineup. While the trio didn’t find instant chemistry, Connolly was making plays that are outside of the skill level of the rest of the Leafs centers. His fantastic vision and passing ability will not only help Phil and Joffrey fill the net, but will also benefit the point men in their quest for goals and points. If… emphasis on if Tim Connolly can stay healthy, he will be a very large asset to this young team. Bringing talent in a center not seen in Toronto for the past few years as well as a veteran voice to a very impressionable hockey club.
Tim Connolly will be Ron Wilsons go to center on the top line, expect him to be there every night he’s not hurting. It’s not unreasonable to assume Kessel will surpass 40 goals with a center like Tim. The key will be staying healthy and finding chemistry. Without those 2 things, this could be another year where Kessel rides the Center Mary-Go-Round.
What does it mean?
All of this simply means that Kessel continues to prove to all those around him and watching him that he is a special player. He is capable of making plays on his own and creating offense out of seemingly nothing. He is a difficult player to play with, which attributes to the number of centers he’s played with. However if the right man for the job can be found, Kessel should consistently be in the top 10 goals scorers in this league for many years to come.