Nobody has ever denied Phil Kessel was a good hockey player. Some would even say great.
There were questions, however, about his mental makeup.
Could a team win a championship with Kessel as its go-to guy? Did he have the mental toughness to take his game to the next level or would he forever be satisfied simply relying on his natural talent? In other words, would he work hard on his game?
When a team gives up on a fifth overall draft pick (2006) as the Boston Bruins did on the heels of making him a healthy scratch in the playoffs, eyebrows are raised.
Give Kessel credit, though. Despite landing in hockey-mad Toronto with the Maple Leafs, an organization starved for success, and in spite of the fact he was the centrepiece of a very controversial trade, Kessel has survived.
Survived and thrived.
With 34 goals and 73 points in 68 games, Kessel trails on Sidney Crosby in the NHL scoring race. He ranks third behind Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks in goals. Kessel will try to narrow the gap between Ovechkin, who has 45 goals, and himself Sunday afternoon when the Maple Leafs meet the Capitals in Washington (3 p.m. ET).
Kessel is socially awkward and yet his teammates insist when he's behind closed doors, he is a happy-go-luck chap who loves to laugh and joke with them. Ask him about a hot streak he might be on, or anything else for that matter, Kessel will likely respond with something like, "It's just hockey, right?"
The reality is, he's right. It is only hockey. It is not brain surgery.
And yet it is what drives this country, and if you are paid as handsomely as Kessel is, you'd better give the impression you care. Kessel may not shout it to the world every day, but his actions on the ice suggest a passion for the game that few can match.
If Kessel continues at his current pace, will score 41 goals and it will be the first time he has hit the 40-goal mark in his career. It has always been said he is capable of scoring 40, but saying it and doing it are two different things. Could 50 be a realistic target down the road?
There is a very good chance Kessel will be voted to the NHL first or second all-star team this season. No member of the Maple Leafs has been voted an all-star team since centre Mats Sundin and defenceman Bryan McCabe made the second team in 2003-04. Being picked to play in the NHL All-Star Game does not make you an all-star. Being chosen to the season-ending first or second team does.
Kessel is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and possesses perhaps the best snap shot in the league. Beyond that, he is also a deft passer who keeps his linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak on their toes. They never know exactly when Kessel might forgo a shot for himself and slip them a sneaky pass. The trio form one of the most potent lines in the NHL.
The question of being able to win with Kessel as the team's marquee piece was partially answered last spring when he answered the bell in the first round of the playoffs against his old team, the Bruins. Kessel scored four goals and six points in seven games and silenced any critics who suggested he didn't have the intestinal fortitude to rise to the occasion at the toughest point of the season.
Turning the corner
Buoyed by his post-season performance, Kessel's confidence spilled over to this season and his star continues to rise.
In recent games, the Maple Leafs have turned a corner. The message that coach Randy Carlyle has been preaching all season about the need to be better defensively seem to be sinking in. Despite an awful 6-2 loss to the Sharks
in San Jose last Tuesday, the dreaded western road swing was a success.
If the Maple Leafs can continue down the road of defensive responsibility and team toughness, who knows how far they can go this season? The Boston Bruins are the class of the Eastern Conference and the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Crosby, are also very good. Neither team, however, appears unbeatable.
With the regular season winding down, one thing has become absolutely certain: A team can be successful being led by Phil Kessel.
Of that, there is no longer doubt.
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