TORONTO — Phil Kessel had the puck and an empty net ahead, and Tyler Bozak, his centerman and friend, felt relieved. "Finally," Bozak thought, after so many games without a goal, after so many of the same old questions, after the damn thing had disappeared into a glove moments earlier, "it's going to go in for him."
Only it didn't go in. The puck deflected off a stick. Even with no goalie, Kessel couldn't score.
The horn sounded. The Toronto Maple Leafs returned to the dressing room with a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night. Bozak looked over at his buddy and made sure to smile.
"He was pissed, but he gave me a little bit of a smile back," Bozak said. "Trying to keep him a little loose. Nothing had to be said. We both knew what we were smiling about."
Kessel's luck has not changed. He has gone eight games without a goal now to start the season. He hit a crossbar but not the back of the net Saturday night in a 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, his former team.
But that zero – as big and fat as it is – says less about Kessel as a player and how he is actually performing than it does about the market, the past and the state of the Leafs. Kessel is not the question (how do they get him going?). Nor is he likely to be the answer (trade him for so-and-so!). He is the object of obsession in Toronto because it's easy and building a winner is hard.
Yes, Kessel is paid millions to score goals, and he's not scoring them. But he's playing well by other measures, still has never had a No. 1 centerman to feed him the puck, and is well known for running hot and cold. He went 14 games without a goal in 2010-11 and then potted eight in eight games. He had seven droughts of six or more games in his first three seasons in Toronto and still finished with at least 30 goals each time.
As streaky as Kessel's goal production has been from game to game, week to week, month to month, it has been remarkably consistent from season to season, and he is coming off his best, most consistent season. He set career highs in goals (37) and points (82) in 2011-12. His longest goal drought was six games. Thing is, he spent most of that season with Joffrey Lupul on the opposite wing. Their chemistry masked the lack of a No. 1 centerman. And now Lupul is out with an arm injury.
Kessel can't win in Toronto for a few reasons: It's Toronto, where players are scrutinized more than most places. He's a shy guy who doesn't say much to help himself PR-wise. The Leafs don't have enough high-end talent, so when Kessel struggles, it sticks out too much. And, of course, he has to live up to what former general manager Brian Burke gave up for him in September 2009 – two first-round picks and a second-rounder, which the Bruins turned into Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight.
But what was Burke's big mistake? It wasn't overvaluing Kessel, even though he overpaid for him. It was overvaluing the rest of the roster. Kessel has been what Burke expected him to be – a goal-scoring winger, a complementary player. The problem has been that the Leafs haven't had a good enough core for Kessel to complement.
Dave Nonis, Burke's successor, can't take Kessel back to the store. He can't return him for two first-rounders and a second-rounder, let alone picks that will turn into second, ninth and 32nd overall. He has to see Kessel for what he is – a 25-year-old goal-scoring winger with a cap hit of $5.4 million and a contract that expires after next season. He has to see the Leafs for what they are – a young team with a new coach, a lot of growing to do and a lot of holes to fill.
The Leafs entered Monday night in eighth place in the East. They haven't made the playoffs since 2004, the longest drought in the league. But they haven't won the Cup since 1967, also the longest drought in the league, and that's more important. Burke had one thing right: It's about a parade, not the playoffs.
What matters is how Kessel fits into the long-term plan. If Nonis thinks Kessel is simply too soft or one-dimensional, if he can get enough for him in return, fine. Trade him. But goal-scoring wingers are hard to find. Say Nonis could flip Kessel for a No. 1 centerman. What would that No. 1 centerman now need? A goal-scoring winger.
Nonis might be better off signing Kessel to an extension the way he signed Lupul to one recently, while continuing to draft, develop and build – not around him, but with him. Kessel started to add to his game under former coach Ron Wilson, and the process is continuing under new coach Randy Carlyle, a more defensive mind.
Under Wilson, the Leafs liked to generate chances off the rush. That accentuated Kessel's speed but also might have led to cheating defensively, and the Leafs didn't have the puck enough. Carlyle asks his wingers to come deeper into the defensive zone, to outnumber opponents at the right times, to get the puck out quicker and to cycle more in the offensive end. Carlyle praised Kessel for his work ethic in last Tuesday’s 4-3 victory at Buffalo.
"He was on the puck," Carlyle said. "He was a factor influencing the puck. Those are the things that we're asking not only of Phil, of all of our players. When it's your opportunity to be first on the forecheck, you better be first. When it's your opportunity to be first on the backcheck, we ask you to be first. You share that responsibility with your linemates."
But what about goals?
"Scorers are going to score," Carlyle said.
Kessel's goal total might turn out to be the least of the Leafs' worries.
"His chances are there," Bozak said. "He's not discouraged at all. I think he's playing really good hockey. The puck's just not going in for him. It'll just take one, and he'll get going."
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