Two seasons into his Maple Leafs’ career, there continue to be plenty of misconceptions about the club’s top goal-scorer, Phil Kessel. It’s not always easy to find a succinct summary of these fallacies, but Mike Brophy, who will cover the Leafs for Sportsnet this season, does a great job of hitting all of the high points in a single paragraph.
In a quote silly enough to make Pension Plan Puppet’s occasional feature on delightful moments in Toronto hockey writing, Brophy says the following:
Start with Kessel. He’s the marquee player on the line; a trigger man who is supposed to be one of the elite goal-scorers in the NHL. But is he? Not really. Just 23 years old, Kessel has massive offensive instincts. He wants the puck and he wants to score. In his last three seasons he has 98 goals which is not bad. But considering he has no interest whatsoever in playing defence and the majority of his shots hit the opposing goalie in the crest, it’s hard to imagine him being a player that will carry a team deep into the playoffs.
Point #1: 98 goals is “not bad.” Courtesy of Hockey-Reference, here are the players within 10 goals of Kessel’s contributions over the last three seasons:
- Rick Nash: 105 goals
- Dany Heatley: 104 goals
- Alexander Semin: 102 goals
- Eric Staal: 102 goals
- Daniel Sedin: 101 goals
- Bobby Ryan: 100 goals
- Thomas Vanek: 100 goals
- Loui Eriksson: 92 goals
- Ryan Kesler: 92 goals
- Jonathan Toews: 91 goals
- Martin St. Louis: 90 goals
- Alex Burrows: 89 goals
- Marian Hossa: 89 goals
What does Brophy think about Kessel’s peers? He picked Heatley to win the ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy in 2010-11, identified Staal as one of the best players in the game, considered Daniel Sedin the front-runner for the Hart Trophy at the three-quarter mark of the year, said that Vanek has delectable talent, could lead the league in goal-scoring, and was “one of the best players in the world,” recognizes St. Louis as having a Hall of Fame-level career and called Hossa “a great player.”
If this seems like belabouring the point, keep in mind that the point is 98 goals over the last three seasons – the 16th best mark in the NHL – is significantly better than “not bad.”
Point #2: “[T]he majority of [Kessel’s] shots hit the opposing goalie in the crest.
Alexander Ovechkin has more goals over the past three seasons than anybody else – he’s scored 138, while nobody else has surpassed the 120-goal plateau. His shooting percentage over that span is 10.9%. Phil Kessel’s shooting percentage? 11.5%.
Also, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of everybody’s shots hit the goaltender. David Jones, the NHL’s cumulative shooting percentage leader over the last three seasons (minimum 20 goals scored) converts at an 18.8% clip. There’s no reason to believe that Kessel hits the opposing goalie in the crest any more than a typical NHL player, and even if he does there’s no reason to believe that hitting the goalie in the crest is worse than hitting him in the pad, or the blocker, or anywhere else for that matter.
Kessel’s shooting percentage isn’t absurdly high. But as Alexander Ovechkin demonstrates, it’s possible to be the league’s most prolific goal-scorer with a worse one.
Point #3: “[I]t’s hard to imagine [Kessel] being a player that will carry a team deep into the playoffs.”
Phil Kessel has played for two playoff teams. In 2007-08, fresh off a 37-point season, Kessel scored four points in four games and led the Boston Bruins with three goals. In 2008-09, Kessel again outdid his regular season performance, again leading the Bruins’ in goals and recording 11 points in 11 games. Nothing in his career indicates an inability to play when the post-season starts.
Of course, that isn’t Brophy’s point. Brophy’s point is that Kessel can’t “carry” a team on a lengthy post-season run. The nice thing about this point is that it’s impossible to refute: Kessel hasn’t carried a team on a lengthy playoff run, so despite strong performances in the playoffs and internationally, one can’t prove anything other than that Kessel scores in the playoffs. The logical conclusion to make, of course, is that Kessel’s a good playoff player, but then that’s a conclusion pretty much anybody can come to.