Milquetoast, hold the jam; on Kessel

(Casper Milquetoast) 

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup, their starting goalie made 40 of 41 saves against a Montreal roster that included Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer. That goaltender was also described as a player, by Andrew Podnieks as one who “lived a life so rife with unhappiness” and was “unfriendly to reporters, teammates, and even small children.”

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Now, in no way does the career of Phil Kessel mirror that of Terry Sawchuk but when people discuss Sawchuk upon reflection of the goaltender who died much too soon, they focus on the records he set and the Stanley Cups he won with the Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.

When we look back on Kessel’s career with the Maple Leafs, however long it is, he will probably be remembered as a player who scored 30 goals consistently on a team that not only had limited star talent, but limited talent in general. Kessel, the only player on Toronto’s first line (he skated at practice on Thursday with Tyler Bozak and Carter Ashton) who would be in the top nine on 25 of 30 teams in the National Hockey League, is not the problem the Leafs face.

Yet there’s a perception that follows Kessel around, probably because he’s a reserved individual with minimal outward personality. Even for somebody who follows the Leafs, they wouldn’t be able to pick his voice out of a crowd’s, or point to any mannerism the man displays aside from the awkward smile he portrays in the rare moments he’s seen in public.

Kessel talks on the ice, playing for a team where so few players can. Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail described Kessel as “a milquetoast, Tom Thumb guy who shrinks even further in front of the cameras.”

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Milquetoast, hold the jam, I guess, being a dominant personality or individual is a characteristic widely appreciated in hockey so long as nobody is too much of one right PK Subban? Sean Avery? Beware the wrath of the media for any player or team that dares to prevent them from transcribing quotes quickly so they can submit their vanilla game recaps.

The Toronto Star has speculated about Kessel’s trade value as very low, Steve Buffrey of the Toronto Star has asserted that “that first line lollygag” (gee, wonder where he got that idea) is the reason behind both the Leafs’ struggles and his own minus-18 rating, as if goaltending doesn’t play a huge part of it.

We’ve noted on this blog how often Kessel will start a rush and finish it as opposed to his linemates. Bozak and, before he got hurt, Joffrey Lupul rarely get or got the same criticism for the first line’s defensive concerns.

The Star, to its credit, left most of the silly comments to their sources, and quoted a general manager who said “to be perfectly honest… I don’t think [Kessel] is a player most teams need on their roster.”

It’s worth noting that he is described only as the GM of a team that is not in playoff contention. And god forbid the Star reveal the source of this cowardly quoter so that fans could understand what kind of team-building genius was suggesting that a 24 year old, four time 30-goal scorer was not a player that most teams need on their roster.

After all, Kessel is 23 and has 68 goals in the last two seasons. Rick Nash is 27 and has 57, and yet it was suggested by the Star that Kessel ought to be the centrepiece of a deal for Nash rather than Nash the centrepiece of a deal for Kessel. I wonder if that ridiculous suggestion, frequently mentioned on Rogers Sportsnet, has anything to do with some talking heads having their careers tied to the success of the latter (step forward Doug MacLean) and a personal dislike of Brian Burke. Naw, the media never has bones to pick. They’re impartial!

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Body-language and lollygagging aside, I have yet to see evidence that any other player in the NHL in Kessel’s skates, charismatic, from Southern Ontario or not, could lead this team any better than the way Kessel has. He isn’t perfect, and perhaps he isn’t the franchise player you build a team around. But his season, third in goals and fourth in points, is certainly something every team needs.

Goals, not post-game quotes, are what wins hockey games, and Toronto fans need to understand this. A few media members’ obsession with an easy story rather than with what wins games makes us forget just how good of a season Kessel is having, personality aside. He won’t answer to reporters after the games, but he’s paid to play hockey, not to spout clichés like a lobotomy patient after 82 games. If that won Cups, the Leafs would ice an all-star team made up of the best of the Star, Sun, Globe, Rogers, TSN, and Post’s corporate teams.

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  • TheHutch

    Why do I get the feeling that GM quote may have been the product of some intrepid reporter calling up Scott Howson to ask his thoughts on the Kessel-Nash talk? It would make almost too much sense.

  • Even though Kessel isn’t as loud and outspoken as other athletes, one thing I find about him – through some of the times he has talked, and the way he carries himself on the ice – is that he genuinely loves hockey on a level that maybe not all players do. I mean, he seems like a guy who’s really the most comfortable when he’s wearing hockey gear. If he was to be traded tomorrow, I think he’d still be a favorite player of mine for the remainder of his career – he’s that gifted.

  • Danny Gray

    To me the story should be that Phil “having a career year surrounded by scrubs” Kessel has yet to complain about how awful the rest of the team has been. Or that he has no support. He takes all the pressure and just shrugs it off and keeps putting up points. For a guy who is supposedly “easy to intimidate” putting up career numbers with a team in free-fall is pretty impressive.

  • Danny Gray

    The impression I get from Kessel is he is a player that is good at playing hockey but not necessarily a player who loves playing hockey. And that he would be more comfortable not being the go-to guy so to speak. Which isn’t a negative as you need all types of players on a team. But he has been put in a situation where he is not likely comfortable in the role he’s been given and that’s not his fault.
    The ironic thing is some of these same criticisms (leading the team on the ice, lack of quality teammates, etc.) were leveled at Mats Sundin and he appeared to handle it with more aplomb yet he still got criticized.

  • Commenting about the tiniest part of your piece.

    I wonder how much of Kessel’s -18 rating is due to being on the ice for empty-net goals and short-handed goals against. Being the Leafs’ best offensive threat, he’s clearly going to be the go-to guy on the powerplay and when down a goal late so he’s going to get the – in those situations while less important and skilled guys are glued to the bench.

    I don’t know how much that affects Kessel’s +/- but Andrew Berkshire has been tracking that type of thing for the Habs this season when he adjusts +/- to “true +/-“. Plekanec’s been on the ice for 16 of the Habs 18 short-handed and empty-net goals against.

    Kessel being on the ice for a similar proportion of those goals for the Leafs would not be surprising and he doesn’t get the benefit of a + for being on the ice for short-handed goals for since he isn’t used as a penalty killer.

    • Whoa, that’s a hell of a stat. Part of it is definitely that while the Leasf are chasing a lead you’ll see Kessel out much more and the Leafs will be pressing.

      Andrew had a good post about how the save percentage when he’s played has killed him too.

    • Yeah, he’s only -8 on the season. Take away ENG and put in league average goaltending and you have a player that is in the + with everyone talking about how good of a defensive season he’s having. That being said +/- really does have to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless the player is getting exactly league average goaltending, it really means nothing.