Streaking star: Leafs need consistent Kessel

It was Oct. 28, 2010. Tyler Seguin(notes) had just given the Boston Bruins a 2-0 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs and the fans were roaring at TD Garden, feeling pretty good about the trade the year before.

The Bruins had been unable to sign Phil Kessel(notes) after he had broken out with a 36-goal season, so they shipped him to Toronto for a rich haul of draft picks – first- and second-rounders in 2010, plus a first-rounder in 2011.

Kessel promptly signed a five-year, $27 million contract with the Leafs and scored 30 goals in 2009-10. But that first pick had become the second overall pick, and it was already paying dividends. Seguin, only 18 at the time, had already scored his second NHL goal.

"THANK YOU, KES-SEL!" the Boston fans chanted. "THANK YOU, KES-SEL!"

Leafs center Tyler Bozak(notes) looked over at his buddy on the bench. Kessel wasn't hanging his head or anything, but Bozak knew Kessel was rattled. He tried to lighten things up. He joked to Kessel that he wished somebody would chant something about him. That'd be so cool!

"I just tried to make him feel better," Bozak said, "but I could tell it was hurting him a little bit."

If you didn't know Kessel, you might have assumed he was feeling guilty about the contract thing, or embarrassed about the trade, or under pressure to produce because of it. And all of that probably did play into the emotion of the moment.

But if you knew Kessel like Bozak did, you would have known that none of that was the main issue. The main issue was the acute social situation. Kessel is at once hypercompetitive, a little goofy … and shy.

Thousands of fans chanting his name? Kessel feels uncomfortable when one of his teammates teases him in front of the group – which, of course, means one of his teammates often teases him in front of the group.

"He doesn't like being singled out in a crowd," Bozak said, smiling. "I tend to do that as much as I can when I'm around him and other guys."

Kessel doesn't like speaking to reporters even if the news is good. He declined to speak to me for this column on Wednesday, when his 25 points gave him a three-point lead in the NHL scoring race. Hey, he had spoken in the dressing room the night before at Air Canada Centre – after he had scored the tying goal in the third period, helping the Leafs come from behind and salvage a point in what would be a 3-2 shootout loss to the Phoenix Coyotes – and he had done more media stuff than usual lately.

After racking up 10 goals and 18 points in his first 11 games, Kessel was named the NHL's first star for the month of October. The announcement came during practice Nov. 1. A Leafs official wrote the announcement on the eraser board in the dressing room at the practice rink, so the players would see it when they came off the ice.

Kessel saw it as he was about to stand in front of it to do interviews, so he raised his bare right arm, wiped off the marker and erased the message. Watch the video, and you can see traces of it in the background.

Asked about the honor, Kessel quickly deflected the attention to his linemates.

"Without them," he said, "I can't score goals, right?"

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It seems counterintuitive that Kessel would excel in a place like Toronto. A shy guy in the Center of the Hockey Universe? With apologies to other hockey-mad markets, there is no place quite like this, where the team hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the team hasn't even been to the playoffs since 2004, the coach is on the last year of his contract, the pressure is mounting and the media attention can be overwhelming.

Add that forever-controversial trade to the mix, and it's even more daunting.

But Kessel is counterintuitive. He grew up in Madison, Wis., home of the University of Wisconsin, yet played his one season of college hockey at the rival University of Minnesota. Maybe it's his build or the way he wears his equipment, but he looks a little dumpy or pudgy, yet the guy can fly and seems as strong as anyone coming down the wing.

He has been known as a streaky scorer, for good reason, but so far this season he has been consistent. His last stat line didn't look good – no goals, no points, minus-4 in a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday night. But he took six shots, tying his season high. And it was only the fourth time in 19 games this season he has been held without a point. He has yet to be held off the scoresheet in back-to-back games. Entering Friday night's action, he still led the league in goals (13) and points (25), and was plus-5.

After the NHL named him the first star of October, someone asked Kessel if he felt like an elite player. He seemed stumped.

"That's a tough question," he said.

It's not that tough for coach Ron Wilson. I asked him if, like me, he looked at Kessel's early success and wondered if it was just another hot streak. He said yes, it was just human nature, but he just enjoyed it. Then eventually he saw it was something more.

"He's proven to be more consistent," Wilson said. "That's not to say that he won't have a slump at some point, and that doesn't mean that … What'll come out is, 'Oh, it's a bad trade' and all that crap we hear all the time. That's all we hear. The minute he goes two games [without a point], 'You see! What a dumb move that was!' And it's not. Phil's an elite player, and he's playing like an elite player."

There are some solid hockey reasons for that: He worked hard in the off-season and seems more fit. While it's true that he has become more of a complete player, doing the little things in the defensive end, it's also true that his line has generally spent less time in the defensive end.

Bozak and Tim Connolly(notes) have been in and out of the top center spot, but that hasn't upset the rhythm. Bozak has gotten better in his third NHL season. Connolly, an oft-injured veteran signed July 2, has helped stabilize things defensively when healthy. And both wingers have been strong.

Whoever has the puck at center, he knows Joffrey Lupul(notes) has been productive with nine goals and 20 points on the left wing, and he knows Kessel will be streaking up the right wing or lurking in a scoring area.

"Phil's actually pretty easy to play with – difficult in that he's demanding of the puck, but you know where you're going to find him when you're playing with him," Wilson said. "I don't think it's difficult to play with a guy who's got blinding speed and great offensive instincts. You've just got to find a way to get him the puck at the right times."

But another reason for Kessel's success might simply be time. He's 24 now, still young, but in his sixth NHL season and third in Toronto. He knows his teammates better and is more comfortable, at least behind closed doors. He and captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) – a bold, outspoken personality – have the fiercest ping-pong rivalry on the team. Phaneuf, who is so serious he has his own paddle, admitted Kessel has gotten the better of him lately.

"I get along with him really good," Phaneuf said. "He's a quiet guy with you guys in the media. He likes to fly under the radar. But each to their own. He's allowed to be like that. It doesn’t make him a bad person. He's just … Behind the doors, he's a completely different guy."

And when he comes out from behind those doors? After Seguin scored a hat trick Nov. 5 in a 7-0 rout in Toronto, Kessel barked back at a question about it and said he didn't care. The point isn't whether he really cares or not. It's whether he can handle the social situation in the Toronto fishbowl.

"He's got to learn how to deal with that, and that's what he's been able to do over time," Wilson said. "That's gradually gaining experience – what works, what doesn't – and understanding that it's never going to go away, and so you have to just forget about it. That's what you have to do."

* * * * *

Now comes the test. After a 9-3-1 start, the Leafs are in a 1-4-1 slide and injuries are piling up. Connolly just returned, second-line left winger Clarke MacArthur(notes) could be back early next week and starting goaltender James Reimer(notes) finally seems on his way after practicing on Friday. But second-line left winger Mikhail Grabovski(notes) is out for a couple of weeks and center Matt Lombardi and defenseman Mike Komisarek(notes) are supposed to be out for up to three weeks.

This is a team that currently has questionable goaltending, a defense that allows too many odd-man rushes and a forward corps with too many holes. There is a reason Kessel played a season-high 26:32 on Tuesday night, then beat that by playing 27:07 on Thursday night. He took a season-high six shots in both games. The Leafs needed offense, playing from behind with a short bench.

Like it or not, Kessel is going to have to be singled out from the crowd. To be considered truly an elite player, he's going to have to keep producing consistently and help carry the Leafs. This can't become just a longer-than-usual hot streak.

"Hopefully I can maintain my pace," Kessel told reporters Nov. 1. "You always want to keep steady the whole year and not have any slumps. So hopefully this year I don't go into any slumps."

Bozak knows Kessel as well as anybody on the Leafs, and he sees some encouraging signs. At least during Wednesday's practice, Kessel was smiling, laughing and joking – chasing Lombardi around for some reason, looking like a little kid during a minor-hockey practice. That's both effect and cause of his success.

"I think that goes with the amount of points he's getting now and the way he's playing, but also I think he plays better when he acts like that, too – when he's loose," Bozak said. "He's not one of those guys that's going to sit in his stall before a game and just close his eyes and focus really hard. He needs to be loose and stuff like that, and I think when he's laughing and joking around and having a good time is when he plays his best."

At the end of our interview, right after talking about the thank-you chants in Boston last season, Bozak made sure to add one more thing about Kessel, unsolicited.

"I think he loves it here," Bozak said. "I mean, look at him this year. He's playing unbelievable. So I don't think we'd take that trade back 100 times out of 100."