Slumpbusters: Phil Kessel Edition

I don’t have the video available for last night’s Leafs game, but a point was made by the Sportsnet crew about Phil Kessel, getting to the goal after the game that triggered a spark.

Doug Maclean referred to the ‘turn back’ the act of stopping short and turning back with the puck while attacking which I think is a good thing. I feel that’s what Kessel has to do break the funk, change it up to catch defenses of guard.

Exactly what Phil Kessel shouldn’t be trying to do right now is forcefully score goals.

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Here’s why:

When talk turns to Kessel missing a top line center, it’s this instance that I feel that elite pivot would be able to help with most. Having that creative playmaker has to increase the chances he finds Kessel in areas to have buried the puck by now.

Tyler Bozak does not fit the bill.

I didn’t bother to break down the video of the Leafs game, instead offer the Game in 6 which has some highlights showing Kessel’s shots on goal. I’m less interested in work ethic – not an issue – it’s all about execution, similar to the points I tried to make in last week’s post.

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Here’s the video from the Hurricanes game.

I generally feel that a prolonged slump may sometimes make a player force plays in acts of desparation, almost trying to will plays into working, instead of utilizing all available options. Forcing the play is not favorable execution.

If Kessel wants to really score, I think that he should stop obsessing about solely scoring a goal. I mentioned predictability, and skating over the blueline for a quick shot, a low percentage play regardless of the quality of the shooter. He could better utilize the attention he attracts from opposition players as they recognize the scoring threat.

If pucks aren’t going in, he has to utilize that space around him better, and rely on his playmaking skills, like in ’11-12. Keep creating; the goals will eventually come.

It’s not like he’s sniping every single shot for a goal, let’s be clear. This isn’t target practice, goal scoring comes from work.

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This is a montage of Kessel goals from 2011-12, paying close attention to the goals he did score. How did he do it? Were they all wrist shots from a few steps over the blueline? How close was he when took shots on goal?

In particular, goal #10 starting at the 3:30 mark best exemplifies the point I want to make. It starts with the pass in the neutral zone.

Kessel takes the pass in the neutral zone with immediate attention from the defenseman and forward who turn their heads and have him in their sights.

He crosses the blueline and finds limited options. Instead of forcing the play and trying to back up the defender, he stops up and looks to set up the play. He did something similar against Carolina, on a solo rush, which I will guess was to change up the angle and spot on which to tee up a shot, which sparked the ‘turn back’ commentary by Maclean.

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This next frame shows just how much attention a goal scorer garners when he has the puck. There are two players directly on him, with some space behind them for pucks.

I made reference to Kessel’s underrated distribution ability and he displays that here, finding the streaking man into the zone, instead of the easy pass to Lupul occupying the space closest to Kessel to advance the puck deeper into the zone. The puck was bobbled at the line and then controlled once again down deep to the half boards.

Once the puck is over on the other side, immediate attention shifts to that flank of the zone. Just look at all the space that Phil has in front of him in the circled area

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The focus then shifted. Every single eye is watching the puck carrier on the left wing along the hash marks. This play just freed up Kessel of all attention. And what does a good goal scorer do with little attention and a lot of space?

He gets into the empty space. By the time the puck gets to Kessel, there’s no one around and he has all the time in the world to get a puck on net and he makes no mistake. (notice Lupul in front of the net).

Scroll through the video for the goals from last season and even from 2010-11 and you’ll invariable see the variety of goals, from the wrist shot at the top of the circle, to getting to the net and burying rebounds, loose pucks, as well as an option for short passes in front and deep.

He maintained good zone range and stayed involved. He didn’t always have to be the main cog in the play, he also supported. He passed the puck more frequently, using vision and available space to advance the play – and change the focus. There’s some stealth in there, he could find it.

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He went to dirty areas that Maclean alluded to on the Sportsnet analysis after the broadcast.

I feel he is doing that instinctively now, which is a positive to continue to build on as he works through this frustrating prolonged slump.

Eventually the goals will come. If he’s not scoring, but can contribute offensively by spreading the puck around and getting to open soft areas can be the right little spark he needs to get the scoring started again.

Of course, the ideal solution is a first line center. An elite first line center.

Search continues.

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  • This to me sounds like, Colton Orr needs to play with elite 2 way players like Grabbo and Kulemin to look better at hockey.

    Taveres produces without much elite talent. Kessel is elite, he needs to make the players around him better. And not leech off another elite talent. Kessel has to find a way to score on the leafs like he has in the past and that is why he is paid as an elite sniper. Else, I’m fine getting an elite center and finding another matt moulson to pot 20 or 30 goals

    • That’s absolutely not the point of this post.

      The point is, if he uses an array of different skills, using his teammates by exploiting the amount of time and space he attracts from the opposition, he’ll eventually start finding himself in more scoring positions just like he did the prior two seasons.

  • Kyle Okposo is a former No. 7 draft pick and Matt Moulson was always a great scorer in the NCAA and the AHL before breaking out late with the Islanders. I don’t think that line’s success is all Tavares.

    Tavares is also a centreman and is expected to carry the burden. Wingers generally don’t do that.

    Additionally, Tavares is a poor example because Kessel has as more goals than Tavares over the last four years, and has more points in two of the last three full seasons.