Phil Kessel hasn’t disappointed in his time in the NHL, developing into one of the most productive and consistent wingers in the league.
But before Kessel was tearing it up in the best league in the world, he was doing the exact same thing as a teenager at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
2005: As a 17 year old, Kessel had a very respectable tournament, managing four goals in two assists in just seven games. Oddly, those are also his exact playoff stats with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kessel finished fourth on the Americans in scoring, despite being the team’s youngest player.
2006: Kessel took home the tournament scoring title, ahead of other big names such as Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and teammate Bobby Ryan. Oddly, despite his reputation as a goal scorer, Kessel potted just one in the tournament, but managed ten assists. Amazingly, even though Kessel managed the lone goal, he led the Americans with 28 shots on goal. Had Kessel run into a better period of shooting luck, his totals may have been even more impressive.
Despite his best efforts, Kessel didn’t even make the tournament all-star team. Malkin was on it, along with Finnish forward Lauri Tukonen, who finsihed with ten points, and… Steve Downie, who finished tied for 13th in scoring. A head scratcher, to say the least.
Although not rewarded with an all-star recognition, Kessel’s playmaking ability was on full display at #2 in TSN’s Top 10 moments from the tournament. Another future (and now former) Leaf in Nikolai Kulemin had a pair of highlight reel plays, as well.
Kessel’s teams fell twice in the semi-finals to Russia before losing bronze medal games to Czech Republic and Finland, respectively.
2005 saw a Russian team featuring Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who dominated the Americans 7-2, with Ovechkin and Malkin both scoring a pair of goals.
Kessel’s future teammate Kulemin scored his team’s first two goals in the 2006 Russian victory, a 5-1 result.
2005: Ryan Suter, Ryan Callahan, Corey Schneider, Drew Stafford, Alex Goligoski, Al Montoya.
Al Montoya has yet to settle into a starting role as an NHL goalie (and at 29, it’s unlikely he will), but was able to hold the starting role for the 2005 tournament over Corey Schneider.
Drew Stafford led the team in scoring with nine points, while Ryan Suter posted seven assists and a goal, both playing all seven games.
2006: Schneider, TJ Oshie, Bobby Ryan, Erik Johnson, Blake Wheeler, Matt Niskanen, Jack Johnson.
Schneider earned the starting role, playing in six of the team’s seven games, while Bobby Ryan’s intensity lead to three goals and four assists to settle for a point-per game pace.
But besides Kessel, it wasn’t a big name who was the team’s most impressive player. As is fairly common, a strong tournament will led to overhyping a player with little prior fanfare. Chris Bourque scored seven goals in seven games for the team- and just two in his NHL career to date in just 51 games.
The scouts’ take:
Kessel was widely regarded as one of the top offensive talents in the upcoming 2006 draft following his second tournament, eventually being taken fifth overall by the Bruins. Kessel was ranked as the 3rd best prospect entering the draft by TSN, while a preseason list by International Scouting Services initially ranked him first. While Kessel’s stock fluctuated back and forth throughout the year, he was always recognized as having elite skating and offensive skills.
Revisiting the first five picks of the draft is quite the interesting adventure. While Erik Johnson didn’t work out long-term in St. Louis at first overall, they were still able to package him in a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk, who’s proven his worth as a very solid defenceman on one of the deepest groups in the league. Next up, however, Pittsburgh straight up blew this pick. With Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Kessel to choose from, they went with… Jordan Staal. Yeesh. Imagining any three of those players on the Penguins today alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is nearly impossible.
I’ll leave you with this photo of Kessel sharing an adorable moment with Jonathan Toews at a pre-draft event, because you’ll probably never see it happen again.