Is This A Goal Scoring Competition? Phil Kessel’s Defensive Game

Not a Selke trophy

A lot has been made of Phil Kessel’s defensive game, or lack thereof, this season. Phil has been labeled as being a soft player that plays poor defensive hockey. Generally the opinion on him is that he doesn’t back check, floats around in the defensive zone and only focuses on the offensive side of his game.

Usually to win a hockey game one team must out shoot their opponent while limiting their shots against. However, this style of play doesn’t work well when your goaltenders are letting 10% of shots into your net. This, unfortunately, is what the Leafs net-minders seem to be doing.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Kessel is going to be up for any Selke awards soon but what I am going to tell you is that he is nowhere near as bad defensively as fans think he is, and I have some numbers to prove it.

Follow me over the jump for details.

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Kessel has been evolving, since he came to Toronto, into a player that can put the puck on net more then the other team’s top lines. Last year he faced the toughest competition that he had seen so far (0.569 Corsi QoC). He didn’t fare as well as you might hope though (-6.55 Corsi ON).

The Leafs decided to continue testing Kessel against tough competition this year (0.637 Corsi QoC) and he saw a big improvement in his possession metrics (0.31 Corsi ON). Kessel has the highest Corsi QoC out of the top five point getters this year, adding to his celebrity.

Last year, Coach Ron Wilson threw him to the wolves, marking the biggest jump in Corsi QoC he had seen in his career. This would explain his disappointing Corsi ON number as he was likely adapting to the increase in competition.

Unfortunately, playing against tough competition means that Kessel is going to see a lot of players that are around his skill level. This means that they are going to be able to dominate play at times as well, resulting in shots on goal.

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Kessel’s plus/minus is not great, in fact it hasn’t been great since Brian Burke traded for him and I think I found the reason for it! Phil Kessel has been playing in front of very, very poor goaltending in Toronto (Vesa Toskala, Curtis Joseph, Jonas Gustavsson to name a few). In his first year as a Maple Leaf he saw a 52 point drop off from the On-Ice Sv% he saw the year before in Boston.

Lets take a look at what Kessel’s plus/minus- would look like this year with league average goaltending behind him:

That is why (for all of you that still think plus/minus is a relevant stat) that you should take the plus/minus rating with a grain of salt. Phil Kessel would all of a sudden have a very sexy plus/minus rating with a good goaltender behind him. I like to think the media and fans would be saying things like this about his defensive game: "Kessel becomes defensive dynamo, all while maintaining a point-per-game pace!"

Phil isn’t close to being the worst defensively in the small group of point-per-game forwards that we have this year. In fact I would argue he might be one of the better forwards defensively among the top ten. For example: James Neal gets nearly 10% more offensive zone starts then Kessel does but finishes with about the same as him, all of this while playing against much weaker competition (-0.638 Corsi QoC).

It’s the age long problem fans have with their star players. Offensively gifted players are not great in their own zone (obviously Datsyuk is an exception). This is likely because throughout their minor and junior careers they were so much better then the other players they simply had the puck on their sticks at all times leaving no time to work on their defense.

So, I’ll say it again: Phil Kessel isn’t going to win a Selke in this lifetime. He is going to have giveaways that lead to ugly two on ones and he’s probably going to look a little lost in the defensive zone sometimes. However, he is going to score a ton of goals and I’ll bet he will continue to get better in his own zone, like he has been doing since coming to Toronto.

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