Maple Leaf fans have always loved their pluggers but never shared the same level of affection for the Leafs’ skilled players. Eddie Shack was more popular than Frank Mahovlich. Tiger Williams was more popular than Lanny MacDonald. Brad Smith was more popular than Rick Vaive. Tie Domi was more popular than Mats Sundin. Even now Mike Brown is more popular than Phil Kessel. The reason why Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour continue to be revered by fans is that they were top scorers who were able to play like 4th liners.
Phil Kessel will likely always be an enigma to Leaf fans. A player with breakaway speed and a lightning release that is 4th in the team in scoring. How can that be?
Well Kessel is in the impossible position of having to justify trading away to lottery draft picks. He will never be able to live up to those high expectations. He is shy almost to the point of being socially awkward. He is not comfortable speaking publicly and often no longer in the dressing room by the time reporters are let in. He is a cancer survivor in his early 20s.
People forget he is the 3rd youngest player on the team after Luke Schenn and James Reimer. He has to do with no support. Since coming to Toronto he has played with a variety of players less experienced than himself with the exception of Matt Stajan. Brian Burke would love to find two linemates to match Kessel’s ability. Most of this season he has been playing with players who on most teams would be in the AHL. Fans complain how frustrated they are watching him go one on one against defensemen – either taking a long shot on net or losing the puck trying to stickhandle the puck through the defenseman. Can you imagine how frustrated Kessel must be skating down the ice with no one to play with?
On the Bruins, Kessel played with Marc Savard and Milan Lucic. The closest thing to Savard and Lucic in Toronto is Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin yet they have been playing with Clark McArthur all season. Almost seems that Coach Ron Wilson is more concerned how McArthur does than Kessel. Obviously Kessel’s frustrations came to a head on the weekend when he actually complained to the media – something totally out of character for Kessel. He was now playing on a line with Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce, two players with a total of 7 NHL career goals. Wilson insisted that this would help his struggle star and actually kept the line together for 3 shifts before moving Kessel to a line with Grabovski and Kulemin. Kessel didn’t score a point but was a +2. Meanwhile Kulemin, Grabovski and McArthur all scored a goal each despite being broken up.
I don’t think Kessel was attempting to take a shot at Wilson he was only expressing some frustration. Yet he likely put the final nails in the coffin that has been Wilson’s tenure as coach of the Leafs. Mishandle a star player is the best way to get pink slipped in the NHL.
At the end of the day, there still will be no love in Toronto for Phil Kessel. He doesn’t block shots, crush opponents or drop his gloves. He just scores beautiful goals.