The Impact of Kessel
Many analysts credit the Toronto Maple Leafs' run for a playoff spot to the goaltending of James Reimer. While he has no doubt been a key contributor, much of the credit has to be distributed to Phil Kessel, who is suddenly tied for the team lead in points and ranks first in goals with 27.
Yes, "poor Kessel," the one who was picked last at the All-Star Game and had 25-goal man Alexander Ovechkin snap a photo of him as he sat alone and made the best of an awkward situation.
Whether it's what happened in Carolina, the hunt for a playoff spot or simply Kessel turning it on at the right time, much of the Leafs' playoff hopes hinge on its 23-year-old sniper.
Kessel's most productive hot streak came between December 28 and January 11, when he scored 4 goals and 11 points in 8 games. He currently has 15 points and 7 goals in his last 11 games (5 goals and 10 points in his last five games) and eight goals in his last eight games. Oh, and fun fact: Joffrey Lupul was acquired 10 games ago. Coincedence? I think not.
While this sort of play is not unfamiliar territority for the streaky sniper, it's his willingness to drive to the net or even position himself close to the net (as seen on his goal against the Penguins last night) that is really impressive. This is no shot at Darryl Boyce or Joey Crabb, but Kessel is clearly benefitting from playing with suitable linemates in Tyler Bozak and Lupul. Bozak may not be the ideal center for Kessel, but no one can dispute the impact Lupul has had on the line. He's getting in the dirty areas and opening space for his linemates with his size and puck control. While Lupul isn't the biggest NHL player (6'1, 206 pounds) he can protect the puck well and it allows the line to cycle the puck more effectively and set-up plays instead of shooting from the perimeter.
With Bozak perhaps better suited as a third-line center, one must ponder how effective Kessel could become once he has a number-one center and enters his prime. It's easy to forget, but at 23 years old, Kessel has plenty of time to erase the criticism that he'll remain a streaky scorer for the remainder of his career.
But what centers might be available this summer? In the free agent market, Brad Richards is the only number-one center on the market and the only chance Burke has to land the 30-year old is to throw a considerable amount of money (same ballpark as his current $7.8 million cap-hit) and sign him to a lengthy term. Another option, according to Andy Strickland (http://www.truehockey.com/articles/NHL-News-and-Notes), is trading for 25-year old center, Paul Stastny. Any deal involving Stastny, however, would almost certainly send Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche. While Stastny could be a better fit than Richards in Toronto, relinquishing assets on entry level contracts could prove problematic for Burke, so expect him to prioritize Richards at the top of the list. The Marlies have also been sampling Kadri on the wing, which is still a possibility down the line at the NHL level.
While the Leafs' drive for a playoff spot has been exciting, whether they make it or not shouldn't deter from the fact that Kessel will never cost the Leafs success, only be a key contributor moving forward. If this is the sort of play we can expect Kessel to deliver in the clutch, then a number-one center should become even more of a priority moving forward. Not just to make the playoffs, but to thrive in them as well.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Kessel trade will never be horrific despite how the Bruins' prospects pan out. Kessel is part of the culture change in Toronto and, at the very least, will be a contributor to any Stanley Cup the Leafs should win. He should always be remembered, at least for the time being, as a symbol of hope in Toronto.
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