He may be scoreless for 11 games, but Phil Kessel isn’t as bad as he seems

He may be scoreless for 11 games, but Phil Kessel isn’t as bad as he seems

Phil Kessel: better than beleagured (Image: Bridget Samuels) 

With Phil Kessel, you have to celebrate small victories. Though the Toronto Maple Leafs highest-paid player forward didn’t record a point in last night’s messy 5-4 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers (thereby extending his scoreless streak to 11 games), he did finish a respectable plus-two. He buried the tempest that erupted over his comments about head coach Ron Wilson. And he even got a promotion midway through the game. Not bad for a player who’s beginning to be called “beleaguered” about as often as the CBC.

Kessel has a paltry 19 goals and 34 points in 52 games, well short of the numbers the sharp-shooting sniper was expected to hit heading into the season. His teammates and even his opponents note he hasn’t lost his ability to create chances—but he has lost his ability to finish them. His current scoring slump is the most obvious evidence of that this season.

Not all the blame can be squarely placed at Kessel’s feet. He’s a sniper without a centre, a wingman without a pilot. Kessel may be a natural goal-scorer but he needs to skate with top-level talent if he’s going to realize his potential. With the Boston Bruins, he played alongside top-line forwards Marc Savard and Milan Lucic. In Toronto, he’s often stuck with well-meaning teammates who would have trouble cracking even the bottom six on the NHL’s better squads.

Moving up from the third line to the first line in last night’s tilt may have paid meager dividends for Kessel on the scoresheet but it did bump his plus-minus for the night to plus-two. Right now, he’s sitting at a team-worst minus-22 20 on the season. He’s only been on the right side of the stat sheet in that regard nine times this year—but what’s interesting is that the Leafs are a perfect 9-0-0 when he is. Interesting, no?

Lastly, earlier this week, Kessel channeled in his inner Forrest Gump when describing his relationship with Wilson—“Me and [the coach] don’t really talk and that’s all I got to say about that”—causing a flurry of speculation regarding whether or not he wanted out of the Big Smoke. But he also laid those rumours to rest as quickly as they erupted last night, connecting the words “love” and “Toronto” numerous times at the morning skate.

Considering he didn’t score a goal—or even tally an assist—Kessel sure accomplished a lot last night.

UPDATE: Kessel’s pay ranking and +/- statistic have been updated. Torontolife.com regrets the error. February 8 at 3:55 p.m.