Why Phil Kessel is the Best Leafs Winger of Our Lifetime

Do you know what I’ve noticed? Whenever anybody says something over the top about Phil Kessel, it’s always negative. If it’s about his personal life, his physique, his play style, whatever, the baseball bat is always swung at a dead, critical horse. You never see somebody overstep their boundaries to controversially praise the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I’ll break from that norm today. Phil Kessel could be argued to already be the best Leafs winger of all time.

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I recruited a class of the best raw and per game goal scorers and point-getting wingers in Leafs history. As well, I included guys who weren’t on the list but had their names in the rafters. I give you thirteen men, who all could be potentially considered the best left or right Winger in Maple Leafs history.

Player Yrs GP G A PTS
Ellis, Ron 15 1034 332 308 640
Mahovlich, Frank 12 720 296 301 597
Pulford, Bob 14 947 251 312 563
Vaive, Rick 8 534 299 238 537
McDonald, Lanny 7 477 219 240 459
Clark, Wendel 13 608 260 181 441
Kessel, Phil 5 364 156 177 333
Conacher, Charlie 9 326 200 124 324
Drillon, Gordie 6 262 127 117 244
Andreychuk, Dave 4 223 120 99 219
Dye, Babe 8 177 173 42 215
Paiement, Wilf 3 187 78 125 203
Stewart, Gaye 4 165 81 52 133

As you can see, Kessel is already flying up the ranks, more than half way to having more points than any winger in Leafs history, despite the top three having all played here for twice as long. I decided to look at their production from a couple of angles.

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The first idea, in theory, is to level the playing field by giving a per-season average. In this regard, Kessel excels, ahead of almost the entire list with an average of 66 points per year. Only Rick Vaive (67) and Paiement (68) are ahead of him. Of course, the issue is that this system favours the modern game, the amount of games in an NHL season has increased over the years. Instead, why not adjust it to an 82 game average?

Here, Kessel falls to the middle of this pack. His numbers are still very impressive, at an average of 35 goals and 40 assists per 82 games played, but it’s not enough to cement his play. Paiement and Vaive take second and third on the list, Babe Dye jumps up to first at a whopping 99 points (80 goals!) per 82 games, and four others leap frog Kessel as well. If only there was a way to adjust for era at the same time.

There Is!

Hockey-Reference has an interesting system called adjusted points. What it does is, is it levels the playing field, adjusting statistics from every season to the same basic standards; 82 games played, relative to a league average of 6 goals per game, and 1.67 assists per goal. This has been the approximate standard throughout the history of the NHL; as a point of reference, 6.05 goals were scored per game in 2005/06.

The results are astonishing.

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Player Yrs GP G A PTS G A PTS
Kessel, Phil 5 410 191 216 407 38 43 81
Conacher, Charlie 9 738 353 311 664 39 35 74
Drillon, Gordie 6 492 198 211 409 33 35 68
Dye, Babe 8 656 277 210 487 35 26 61
McDonald, Lanny 7 574 190 213 403 27 30 57
Andreychuk, Dave 4 328 125 103 228 31 26 57
Mahovlich, Frank 12 984 323 333 656 27 28 55
Vaive, Rick 8 656 234 189 423 29 24 53
Paiement, Wilf 3 246 60 97 157 20 32 52
Pulford, Bob 14 1148 272 342 614 19 24 43
Stewart, Gaye 4 328 92 73 165 23 18 41
Ellis, Ron 15 1230 318 300 618 21 20 41
Clark, Wendel 13 1066 232 161 393 18 12 30

Kessel’s numbers go from great to historic. Adjusting for the evolution of the game, on a per-season basis, Phil Kessel is more productive than any Leafs legend or well-remembered player on the right wing. Or the left wing.

Of course, the argument can be made that Kessel benefits from having a five year sample; particularly because regression hasn’t worked against him yet. I think that the development curve that he went through in his first few years balances this out to an extent, but for the sake of argument, I combed through and got the best adjusted five year, 410 game runs available.

Player Age G A PTS G A PTS
Conacher, Charlie 21 to 25 261 221 482 52 44 96
Kessel, Phil 22 to 26 191 216 407 38 43 81
Dye, Babe 23 to 27 221 174 395 44 35 79
Mahovlich, Frank 23 to 27 181 186 367 36 37 73
Drillon, Gordie 23 to 27 168 186 354 34 37 70

The table sways back the other way once again. This time, Charlie Conacher’s five year total rises above Kessel’s, and Babe Dye’s closes in. But, even still, Kessel’s “peak” which to date is the only bit his play that we’ve seen, is the second best run that any Leafs winger has had.

I think realistically, Conacher is a bit ahead of Kessel; those numbers are undeniably a class above the rest. But we’re also talking about a guy who was the best goal scorer of his generation, leading the league five times in six years, a mark only repeated by Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, and Brett Hull.

It’s also worth considering who these players played with. Conacher spent his peak with Busher Jackson and Joe Primeau; the kid line was considered to be the premier offensive trio of the 1930’s, and are all hall of famers.  Babe Dye played with Jack Adams and Hap day; another HHoF trio. Gordie Drillon came right after Conacher, and got to play with Jackson and Syl Apps.  Mahovlich started with Red Kelly and Bob Nevin (the first non Hall of Famer mentioned), and also played with the likes of Dave Keon and Andy Bathgate. 

Phil Kessel’s “long term” Leafs centres have been Matt Stajan and Tyler Bozak. He’s had stretches with John MItchell and Joey Crabb on his wing. Obviously, James van Riemdsyk and Joffrey Lupul have been good left wingers to pair with him in the past few years, but they’re not close to the echelon of support that the others had.

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Closing Thoughts

Phil Kessel gets picked on for a lot of stuff. “He’s chubby!”, the people say, even as he flies down the ice with speed and grace, while scoring high on team fitness tests. “He’s not great defensively!”, they say, as he continues to play in a way that leaves the puck to be more likely in the offensive zone than when anybody else on the team touches it. Not to mention the fact that many don’t understand the responsibilities of a winger when he’s on the ice.

They complain about him being awkward and shy, and not a true face, as if his outgoingness to the public matters when he’s on the ice. They complain that he disappears when it counts, when he was a minute and a half away from having three game winning goals in Toronto’s only playoff series in the past decade. 

They complain that the Leafs invested too much in him. That two question marks, that happened to create good hockey players, was too much.

The Leafs got back a 21 year old with talent that defies the image of a star player that Torontonians have had in their heads for decades. The Leafs got back a guy who had the mental fortitude to brush off any criticism that headed his way.

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The Leafs got back the best winger that they’ve had in my life time. The best winger that they’ve had in your life time. In your parents life time, and maybe your grandparents life time. You can argue that in the past century, there hasn’t been a more dangerous offensive weapon along the boards than Phil Kessel.

They complain, they complain, they complain. Yet he does his job so much better than the rest, ignores the complaints, and committed to staying here for eight more years.

He has nothing left to prove to Toronto. He’s proven it. One day, the populace will look back and recognize that they under-appreciated some of the best individual play the city has ever seen.

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  • Benjamin

    Typical Brozie smear article!

    *end sarcasm*

    This was awesome, only response anyone should give to the baseless anti-Kessel stuff that gets ‘reported’.

  • CMpuck

    From day one liked Phil better than Mats, love his awkwardness as he just shrugs off criticism like an adult should, doesn’t get caught up in stupid media driven bs. Phil looks to continue to be a consistent top ten point producer year in year out, something Mats could never accomplish. Phil just has a better attitude, all business and no fake leadership media smile.

    It’s unfortunate that Kessel had to play in the shadow of the Bruins recent success and now Seguin’s emergence, had the Leafs drafted him or Burke just traded Kadri and Kaberle for him he’d be considered one of the league’s best which he is. Unfortunately team struggles and what ifs overshadow Kessel’s dominance.

    • jasken

      No they actually at times played with their enforcers there was actually no set lines back then it was whoever the coached tapped and wanted on ice at the time. Imagine Kessel getting the tap to play with orr or mcclaren being a common occurrence.

      Although Derlago who was Vaive’s center most times didn’t have more then 13 goals away from playing with Vaive you could say Vaive made Derlago a star so much so he was 35-40 goal scorer with Vaive and 5-13 goals away from Vaive now that is making a player better. You people go on about how bad Bozak is but the fact is I seen much worse play with wingers who produced alot more with a lot less shots and talent then Kessel does.

      If Kessel would actually score on more then those 1 goal in 9 or 10 game spans he goes on to bring it up to say 3 goals he is a 50 goal scorer but the fact is he dont and it dont matter who his center is.

  • jasken

    Lets not get into comparing and making statements that a neither true nor does it make any sense at all to compare different eras lets just say he is the top winger the Leafs have had in last 10 years and leave it at that.