TLN’s All-Time Greatest Leafs Team: Phil Kessel

As we embark on our annual TLN Top 20 Prospects series, it’s important to remember and recognize the special players that paved the way for tomorrow’s stars. Over the next few weeks, we will be announcing our first ever TLN All-Time Greatest Leafs Team, announcing a new player every day until we’ve filled out our 23-man roster.  

It’s been a crazy few weeks, as we’ve combed through some of the greatest players in Leafs history to create an all-time team. We’ve spanned decades upon decades, going as far back as the 20’s and 30’s to grab the likes of Babe Dye and Charlie Conacher. Our goaltending rotation ranges from the present age of 44 to 89. The team’s centre depth is about as good as it gets for any potential team; off the top of my head, only Montreal, Detroit, and Pittsburgh could definitely claim better options down the middle.

But we’re still missing one more player on the wing. A top six winger, no less. While many will surely disagree with the selection, I don’t think there’s a better player left to choose than the recently departed Phil Kessel.

Career Statistics

Kessel joined the Leafs in one of the most controversial trades of the modern era, as Brian Burke sent two first round picks and a second rounder to the Boston Bruins for the 21-year-old sniper. As we all know, Burke grossly over-estimated the talent level of his team (Mike Komisarek and Jeff Finger were not helping their cause), and the team crashed and burned, but the Bruins managed to turn Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight into a bucket of hot ooze anyway.

You could see why Burke wanted to take the risk, though – Kessel had picked up a 36 goal season and point-per-game playoff in sheltered minutes, albeit with a great centre in Marc Savard. While he didn’t immediately repeat that pace, Kessel began to make an impact relatively quickly. Though he missed the first twelve games of the 2009/10 while recovering from shoulder surgery, he went on to lead the team in goals and points, a trend that continued throughout his career in blue and white.

In his time here, Kessel put up some great numbers, no matter which way you slice it. Compared to the rest of the league in the same stretch, Kessel played the 23rd most games and currently holds the League’s fifth-longest ironman streak. He scored more goals than anybody other than Alex Ovechkin, Corey Perry, and Rick Nash. He was top-ten in points across the league, and still remains near the top when adjusting for a per-game basis. This is all while spending the majority of his time with either John Mitchell, Matt Stajan, or Tyler Bozak down the middle, and whichever left winger happened to be healthy at the time.

Using Hockey-Reference’s era adjusted numbers also works out in his favour. I crunched the numbers before the start of last season, and as it turns out, Kessel led all Leafs wingers all-time in adjusted points per season. To make up for the short stretch in prime age, I turned it into the best five-year burst, but at that point, he still was better than every winger the Leafs have had other than Charlie Conacher.

While Kessel wasn’t the best defensive forward by any stretch of the imagination, he was definitely Toronto’s premier offensive winger, in our own generation and in most others. 

Most Memorable Moments

I don’t know if you have an hour to watch Phil Kessel be really awesome at hockey, but if you do, you should probably watch this video. There’s just too many pretty goals to isolate a couple.

Phil has had his share of off-ice moments, be it disgruntlement, admiration for cookies, or general shyness. I’ve picked this one as my favourite though because he backs up his disdain for a really stupid question by not only calling the reporter (who most of us know, but we’ll skip mentioning), but sticking up for his teammates in the process. It was a rare look at him having the team’s back “in the room”, and perhaps came a little too late to shake his reputation, but it was still great to see.

Leafs Milestones

  • 18th most goals all-time (T-6th game-winning, 9th even-strength, 10th powerplay, 10th per-game)
  • 22nd most assists all-time
  • 20th most points all-time (fewest seasons played in top 20, 9th per-game)
  • 2nd most consecutive games played all-time (446)
  • Most games played with Tyler Bozak

Legacy

It’s hard to say what Kessel’s legacy will be, given that he’s only been away from the Leafs for two months and is yet to play his first game as a Pittsburgh Penguin. But it’s safe to say that, despite all the spectacular play, he’ll be remembered as a “what if” or a “wasted opportunity”.

His biggest critics will be asking the questions that fit the narratives. What if he was a little less introverted? What if he was in the gym more? What if he was more defensively responsible? What if the trade never happens? They’ll say he wasted his body, and wasted his opportunity to care. They’ll say Brian Burke wasted a rebuild.

His biggest fans will be doing the same. What if the Toronto Media laid off his case? What if he played with Mikhail Grabovski or Nazem Kadri more often? What if the Leafs were able to build a playoff team around him for more than a week and a half? They’ll say that his talents were wasted while being surrounded by garbage.

The answer is likely somewhere down the middle. I’ve never been one to question his conditioning (he did play 446 consecutive games and skates faster than most of the league), but maybe some more time working on his body helps him get an additional step. Great players don’t need great teammates, but they could have probably have found him better support. I’ll always be curious as to the effect that Mike Babcock could have had on him; it would be either super beneficial, or super damaging.

But I guess we’ll never know. Phil Kessel leaves this team with a presently polarizing legacy – he’s the kid from Wisconsin who came in just wanting to play a little bit of hackey, before going home to watch some television while eating a snack. He was a man who never really took himself too seriously, to an extent that tarnished his reputation. He was the closest thing the NHL had to an average joe who also happened to be an elite talent. It’s up to you to decide whether that description is for better, or worse, but one thing’s for sure – nobody who wore blue in white in this disaster of a decade was as exciting to watch with the puck as Phil Kessel.

Few ever have been.

  • Mapleleafs75

    Kessel was consistently great.

    He wasn’t a leader but the media and fans blamed him like he was. His lack of fitness was a ridiculous story line which was at times pretty mean – not the way to treat our only star player. As you mentioned Jeff, he was faster than most of the NHL anyway.

    He should be remembered as a goal scorer, plain and simple.

    All that said, still glad we traded him for the new rebuild. Hope he does well in Pitts.

  • SEER

    He is a great offensive player.., but his defensive side and workout ethics are much to be desired.., especially for an NHL level player…

    If he doesn’t start training harder on a more consistent basis, I can’t see him playing into his late 30’s.., because your body starts to shut down, after a certain age… and it needs constant conditioning to do things that just came naturally, when you were younger..

    American Sniper: All Phil Kessel’s 2014-15 Goals

    —> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib3k2rC92X0

  • silentbob

    In a 1 game situation, yes I include Kessel (and hope he has a good game, because one thing he was not, was consistent), he certainly is in the top 4-6 of Leaf all time wingers.

    If we’re putting together a team that is going to remain together and be a team for years, then I leave Kessel off. He was the only member of the core that was moved this off-season, clearly is a reason(s) Shanahan felt an urgency to move Kessel & that (it would appear) Babcock was ok with it but not the rest of the core. Whatever it was (and there are reports/rumors out there), I wouldn’t want that affecting the locker room/team in a long term situation.

    Has Clark been mentioned for this team yet? Because if there is a need for 1 more top 6 winger, and he isn’t already on the team, 17 should get the spot over 81 each and every time.

    • silentbob

      Kessel was the only member of the core that was moved because he was the one that would garner the best return. JVRs contract is really good but a RW that shoots right is worth so much more. Especially when that RW has the 5th most goals in the NHL since 2010.

      • silentbob

        So there is no point trading a player unless they would get the Leafs the same return Kessel did?

        Kessel was moved because, at least partly, because of off-ice issues, and if I’m putting together a team that is going to stay together for any length of time, I keep him away from that reason.

          • silentbob

            I’m not saying every report was 100% correct.

            However he was traded while they don’t appear to be in a rush to move anyone else, there has to be a reason why they rushed to trade Kessel but reportedly turned down a 2nd rounder for Bozak.

            Babcock apparently wants a chance to work with Phaneuf, Kessel……doesn’t appear he did.

          • silentbob

            There was an interesting piece and I wish I can remember what site it was on – just yesterday or the day before – about how players train. In it the point is made that for the first part of the summer, players don’t train -they recover. The second part of the summer is a mix of light training and “rehab”. The heavy training doesn’t start til the month or so before training camp.

            A throw away line in that article was that it made sense why Kessel would have said last year he only skated x number of times during the summer.

            The perception of Kessel as lazy is in fact based on many misconceptions of the whole training regimen – including the one that says that as you get older you have to train harder so you may as well start young.

            In fact the process by which you build muscle is as follows. You do work, you create tears in your muscle tissue, new muscle cells are made, you actually end up with more muscle than you started with. All well and good – but when you tear cells, part of the healing and building process is inflammation. Modern research shows that inflammation is very bad for your body.

            In some regards over training at a younger age is just as likely to result in you burning your body’s recovery and healing system out faster. Gordie Howe didn’t play til 50 because he lifted weights when he was in his 20’s.

            Fitness however has become an industry, and as with all industries, it succumbs to advertising to further enhance the attractiveness of their product, and to create the incentive to buy their product.

            Now I’m not an analyst or a number’s guy. I don’t even get to watch as many games as I’d like. But what I do recall seeing last year – and what I think is the biggest reason Kessel does what he does – is other players taking cheap shots at Kessel, cross checking him at every opportunity – and not a single team mate standing up for him.

            Considering the number of times and the ways he was whacked at, the fact that he didn’t miss games is simply amazing. However, once your body starts to be bruised and battered, no amount of additional training or conditioning is going to stop you from losing a step.

            Phil took a lot of crap because no other genuine “carry the team” scoring options emerged behind him. The solution wasn’t to play hi with Kadri or whatever. The solution would have been for Kadri to elevate a second line to greatness so that there’s be no point in trying to focus on taking Phil out.

            But when Kessel clearly was the heart that pumped the offence’s blood – well – slow him down, kill the team.

            Did he give up at some point? Who knows. Maybe his bruises, aches, and pains just simply caught up to him and he was just too private and proud an individual to come out with just how much discomfort he was playing through.

            He didn’t take those maintenance days because he was lazy. He took them so he could recover enough not to have to miss the games – because to him it was the games that counted.

            His biggest problem was probably his lack or weakness in social skills. He is an introvert who has a low tolerance for idiocy. He tries not to say anything at all when he feels he has nothing good to say. If pressed, he lacks the ability to provide a politically correct answer outside of plain platitudes.

  • BubbaLou

    I’m going to manipulate Frank Mahovlich’s page

    -Phil Kessel, The Big K-. He’s a fascinating story. With a lot of these players that played for the blue and white -recently-, it’s tough to really find -a straight answer- to tell. Kessel, though, is something else. Not only was he a superstar on the ice, but he went through quite a lot off of it. For despite all of his talent and productivity, he was the victim of constant abuse from both the organization and the fans – so much so that this legendary Leaf was ran out of town as the team’s last -let’s sign David Clarkson!- dynasty came to a close.

    Huh. Didn’t have to edit as much as I thought.

    Way to support your team, you garbage media outlets – “kicking superstars off the Leafs for cooked up reasons since 1967” isn’t a legacy I’d like to have. The Big M even won 4 cups and we can’t be happy. I see the abuse of Mahovlich as the start of the poison era that exists even today, where we must always have Leafs sportswriters crying how bad we are in Toronto… just so they wrote how bad we are, 404: logic not found. You know, trashing Mahovlich probably sold a lot of papers.

    At least Phil Kessel won’t be pushed into clinical depression – he has Crosby and Malkin as Psychotherapists.