What's Buzzing:

Maple Leafs face bigger questions than Phil Kessel's scoring slump

Yahoo Sports

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."

View gallery

.

A streaky scorer, the Leafs' Phil Kessel is still looking for his first goal of the season. (USA Today)

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.

View gallery

.

Boston added Tyler Seguin (L) and Dougie Hamilton (C) with draft picks it obtained from Leafs in Kessel deal.  …

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.

Eventually.

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."

Kunitz hat trickChris Kunitz nets his third goal in a Pittsburgh win.

Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
Fans' reaction: What was the best Super Bowl ever?
NBA super-fan Jim Goldstein is immediate Twitter must-follow
Video: Is Michigan State a title contender?
Video: Are Sharks the Stanley Cup favorite?

View Comments (118)
  • Henrique's overtime goal lifts Devils over Flyers 2-1

    Henrique's overtime goal lifts Devils over Flyers 2-1

    Adam Henrique scored a power-play goal 2 minutes, 58 seconds into overtime to lift the New Jersey Devils to a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. Joseph Blandisi scored in regulation for the Devils, who snapped a three-game road … More »

    AP - Sports - 16 minutes ago
  • Blues-Lightning Preview

    While it's unclear how long he'll remain in Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos can get the Lightning's home win streak into record territory before it's time to make that crucial decision. After playing the hero in the latest game, Stamkos will try to help … More »

    AP - Sports - 1 hour 59 minutes ago
  • Carrie Underwood trolls Ryan Johansen on Twitter

    Carrie Underwood trolls Ryan Johansen on Twitter

    Carrie Underwood, wife of Nashville Predators forward Mike Fisher, may just have cemented her status as the First Lady of Hockey, at least among active players. She did so by chirping Fisher's Predators teammate Ryan Johansen on Twitter. … More »

    Puck Daddy - 2 hours 22 minutes ago
  • Montreal Impact acquire midfielder Harry Shipp in trade with Chicago Fire

    Montreal Impact acquire midfielder Harry Shipp in trade with Chicago Fire

    American offensive midfielder Harry Shipp was acquired by the Montreal Impact on Saturday in a trade with the Chicago Fire. Chicago got general and targeted allocation money in return. Shipp, 24, has played two seasons in Major League Soccer with … More »

    The Canadian Press - 2 hours 36 minutes ago
  • Ducks-Blackhawks Preview

    Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said a lack of respect for a last-place opponent is why his team lost its last game. The Ducks look to bounce back Saturday night when they face a Chicago Blackhawks team that knocked them out of last season's … More »

    AP - Sports - 3 hours ago