According to Damien Cox of Sportsnet, Phil Kessel is
probably injured in quite a few ways. Thus far, he’s been able to play through
these injuries. But, and I know the gravity of what I’m suggesting, wouldn’t it
be in the best interests of everybody for him to sit a couple of games?
Again, the source of this story is Damien Cox, who mentioned
it on Rogers Night In Canada (or whatever they call it these days).
Specifically, it looks like Kessel is playing through back and/or hand
injuries. From Cox’s segment:
“I think it’s been a couple of games now, that Phil Kessel hasn’t been at his explosive best for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Why? He’s not just battling an injury, but he’s battling multiple injuries, say those people in the know. Probably his back, maybe his hand or wrist, it’s enough of a problem that there’s lots of discussion within the organization. Do they need to give Phil Kessel a few days off? Or more days off? Something Randy Carlyle doesn’t like to give anybody.”
Phil Kessel loves playing hockey. So much so that he almost
never misses games. To date, the 27 year old right winger has only missed three
separate stretches of time, and one of those was due to testicular cancer as a
rookie. For a guy whose toughness is questioned, he finds a way to play
whenever he can.
In fact, since his debut with the Leafs, he’s been in the
lineup for every single game. One could argue that he’s had the odd bad game
where he played like he wasn’t playing, but he’s most definitely physically
been there for them. Including the playoffs, Kessel has played 397 consecutive
It’s an admirable streak, and I’m sure nobody would like to
see it go away without a good reason. But there is one, and it’s his future.
You don’t need to be a doctor to know that engaging in any
sort of physical contact while injured greatly increases the chances of
injuring yourself further or making the injury into a chronic issue. At his
age, Kessel may feel like playing through the pain isn’t going to do much
damage, but what happens later in his career when it begins to catch up to him?
We’ve seen it in Toronto before. Look at Wendel Clark; also
a face-of-the-franchise winger, Clark played a reckless game, frequently put
himself in high-risk positions, and often didn’t give himself enough time to
recover from the injuries he sustained. His back caught up to him, his play
degraded, and he had to retire before his 34th birthday. Kessel
obviously doesn’t put himself in as many risky spots, but does he want to be
that guy? A few games off could add a few seasons to his career, if he needs
This rings especially true with his style of play, if the
speculated injuries are indeed accurate. His back needs to stay healthy to keep
his explosive first step and all-around fantastic skating ability. It, along
with his hand, need to stay in tip-top shape to maintain his one-of-a-kind
snapshot, which uses a very unique motion that probably shouldn’t be interfered
with by aching bones.
Players with injuries are easy to spot. Players with
injuries to body parts that are integral to their stand-out talents are
practically screaming for you to look at them. I can say this from experience,
watching Joe Colborne play through a busted wrist for seven months while
everybody wondered where his playmaking abilities went. You can see it on
Kessel’s bad nights when he’s not feeling physically sound – his standout
abilities are shut down by himself, not by his opponents.
For his sake, he needs to make sure he keeps his strengths
in good condition.
Dave’s Case Study
I know it’s hard to suggest to a man whose job it is to make his NHL roster as good as possible that he should take his best player off of the roster for any period of time, but there are two ways of looking at this.
One, the long-term approach that was mentioned in the prior section. This doesn’t just apply to Phil Kessel, but to the man who just committed to having Phil Kessel’s rights for the next eight years. Those are a lot of years, and a lot of of things can happen in those years. Would you risk having a broken down player in year six so he could play an extra four or five games in year one? I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time this management has felt that approach to be sound:
“I’m not worried about six or seven right now,” Nonis said. “I’m worried about one. And Year One, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.” [National Post]
When Dave Nonis said that, he signed David Clarkson to one of the worst contracts in the history of the National Hockey League. David Clarkson, coincidentally, is already getting hurt a lot (and more importantly is not a very good player). I know that most GM’s don’t make it to the seven or eight year mark, but Nonis should be in the mindset that he could still be here if he’s good enough, not making decisions for his usurper to fix.
As well, sitting Kessel for a few games could work out to be a good evaluation period for some of his players. What do Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Stuart Percy, Brandon Kozun, Carter Ashton, Korbinian Holzer, James Reimer, and a few other guys playing a league below have in common?
Every single NHL game they’ve ever played has involved Phil Kessel joining them on the bench. They do not know the NHL without Phil Kessel as their teammate. In Bozak’s case, he barely knows the NHL without Kessel as his linemate. Wouldn’t this be a good way to see where some guys are at? Maybe throw somebody else on a line with Van Riemsdyk and Bozak and see if that group can handle twenty minutes without Phil? See how the top powerplay unit operates without such a lethal threat? While unlikely, maybe some benefits are found.
Phil Kessel is a once in a lifetime player for this organization, and for the sake of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they’re going to want to keep him in tip-top shape. He’s been committed to for nearly a decade, and if they play their cards right, a few more years could probably be added to that. For his own sake, I’m sure he’d like to stay in good shape, both so he can be good at hockey in the present and live a happy and healthy life after his career is done.
I know this all sounds like huge extrapolation for a playable injury, but I have no doubt in my mind that this isn’t Kessel’s first dance with a situation like this. Players don’t just play four hundred games in a row in perfect shape. He’s exemplified tremendous commitment to the team over the past few years, but maybe, just maybe, the next step of commitment is to take a breather.