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Phil Kessel’s blazing start for the Maple Leafs: Trick or treat?

The NHL offensive leader board currently has Phil Kessel(notes) tied with John Tavares(notes) of the New York Islanders and David Legwand(notes) of the Nashville Predators with eight points, and tied with Tavares and James Neal(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins with five goals.

Alphabetically, Kessel is placed above them in the ranking, hence he's leading the NHL in points and goals. The sight of this makes one (a) ponder, albeit briefly, if the NHL leader board had been hacked by a Senators, Canadiens or Bruins fan; and (b) realize that the Toronto Maple Leafs are 3-0-0 and Phil Kessel has been a [expletive] stud for them.

He scored twice and added an assist in their win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday night, following his hat trick against Ottawa on Oct. 8. This month being a time for tricks and treats, we apply this filter to Phil Kessel:

The treat is that he's traditionally a fast starter offensively, scoring seven goals in 10 games in Oct. 2010 and eight goals in 13 games in Nov. 2009 (he missed the start of the season with an injury). Last season, his four goals in four games helped the Leafs to a 4-0-0 start … which brings us to the trick.

The trick is that Kessel's next months can be colder than Helena Bonham Carter in an arctic research facility. In 2009-10, he had one point in 11 games as the calendar flipped, the Leafs going 3-6-2 during that stretch. In 2010-11, he had three goals in November and Toronto went 3-7-3, digging a hole from which they never emerged.

Don't read this as a post providing needles for Leafs fans' balloons; they're going to get enough of that "plan the parade" treatment from opposing fan bases waiting (or hoping) that Toronto tumbles down the conference standings (again).

Rather, it's a post about Phil Kessel, and whether last season's laughingstock is this season's superstar. About whether this is another in Kessel's tradition of grand openings and meager encores, or if we're seeing a player turn the corner from very good scorer into a complete NHL standout.

From the start, Kessel looks like a different player, or at least the player he can be in flashes. As Armchair Hockey wrote:

"Phil Kessel has clearly used the off season to improve his two way play and finally looks like the superstar Brian Burke thought he was getting from Boston."

Jeff Veillette wrote that "this is the Phil Kessel we've been waiting for" after the hatty against the Sens:

For everyone who has criticized Kessel for anything — his laziness, his consistancy, his contract, what the Leafs gave up to get him, any of that, and beyond — this is the kind of game that makes you realize that for his faults, fan-manufactured or legitimate, are just a minor deal and are all made worth it.

If this is the Phil Kessel that we see this year, it'll be the jump to elite player that we've been waiting for years. Not that the back-to-back-to-back 30 goal scorer was a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but for all the naysayers saying this team lacks a superstar, it looks like he's ready for it.

Adam The Leaf Guru on Don't Stop BeLEAFing, after the Calgary win:

With a three point night Kessel now has 5 goals, 3 assists for 8 points on the season.  More impressive then the offensive numbers, is Kessel's determination on the defensive side of  the puck, which has been incredible over the first three games.  Taking a cue from the WWE circa the late 80's, I've officially nicknamed Phil Kessel "Saturday Night Main Event!"

(Man, do we miss Saturday Night's Main Event.)

Michael Langlois of Vintage Leaf Memories had another Kessel rave: (via PPP):

It's hard for fans not to "fall in love" with Phil Kessel when he performs like he did Saturday night.  Before he even scored the tying and eventual winning goals, he was flying, setting up plays, just looking like the Kessel that Leaf fans want to see.

We've seen bad Phil (lackluster, uninvolved, unproductive) but this was very much good Phil. And while he basically sleep-walked through pre-season, no one cares because he is delivering when it matters—when points count in the standings. His second goal, fending off a defender while managing to roof the puck from in close, was a masterpiece.

The masterpiece in question:

So is this the year Kessel's fast start is something more than a temporary jolt? Noah Love of the National Post attempted to diagnose it with some tempered optimism:

At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Kessel was playing the same game he always had: skate up the ice; take a low percentage wrist shot; hope for the best. A couple of weeks into the season, defences adjust to that play. They get in Kessel's face and make the percentage of his long shots even lower.

It seems that he has readjusted. Kessel has started going to the net; he's not always thinking shoot-first; and he has been almost as good off the puck as he has been on it. To be fair, three games, two weak defences and the comedy roadshow that is the Calgary Flames. Kessel and the Leafs won't see a legitimate contender until Game 6, next Thursday in Boston.

Kessel has always been the guy with the lethal offense skills. He's cracked 30 goals three times. There are teams in this League that would covet him as a top-line player.

But since he came to Toronto, he's been saddled by the price Brian Burke paid for him. He's seen as a cause of the Leafs' inconsistency rather than a symptom. He's labeled as a star, and then demonized for not playing like one. He's Mr. Irrelevant in the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, and becomes a symbol of how the NHL's players "revile" Toronto. Fans were carrying "MISSING" posters with Kessel's face on them at the Air Canada Centre.

Maybe Kessel got tired of the pile-on. Or frustrated seeing his former franchise skate the Stanley Cup. Maybe this time, the early-season roll doesn't hit go off the rails one month later.

Trick, or treat?

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