How Important is Kessel?

When Brian Burke made his first blockbuster deal and acquired Phil Kessel from Boston in exchange for the Leafs top 3 draft picks over the next two years, there was plenty of discussion over whether or not Burke was simply following a longstanding Leaf tradition of mortgaging the future for short term success, or in the case of recent Leafs teams, short term failure. In this case, I think the Leafs have finally scratched a winning ticket.

Kessel scored 36 goals last season, more than Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin and Jarome Iginla. In fact, the only goal scorer under the age of 23 with more goals than Kessel was superstar Alexander Ovechkin. The Leafs haven’t successfully drafted a 30 goal scorer since selecting Vincent Damphousse in 1986. Brad Boyes was drafted in 2000, and has scored 76 goals in his last two seasons with St. Louis. Unfortunately, Boyes never played a game for the Leafs, as he was included in the deal that brought veteran Owen Nolan to Toronto. Since Mats Sundin retired, the Leafs have not had a player that brings the “superstar” qualities that Kessel does.

Let’s look at the numbers. In 17 games with the Leafs, Kessel has 10 goals and 16 points. Toronto is 8-6-3 since Kessel came back from shoulder surgery. Previous to Kessel’s return, the Leafs were 1-7-4, and off to one of the worst starts in team history. Since Kessel, the Leafs are beginning to look more and more like a team that is capable of reaching some of the lofty goals set by Brian Burke, most importantly, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Don’t get me wrong – the Leafs have a long way to go before they can hope to be playing anything but golf this spring, but for the first time since Sundin, the Leafs have a player with game breaking potential.

Perhaps the best part of having a superstar on your team is the spark he brings to the rest of the team. You watch the Penguins or the Captials, and it’s not just Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin who are pulling off highlight reel dangles and making goalies wish they’d gotten the night off. The whole team plays more creatively. Look at the stats of some players that have been crucial for the Leafs during their recent success:

Matt Stajan – 3 goals and 7 points in October – 6 goals and 14 points since Kessel joined the roster.

Alexei Ponikarovsky – 5 goals and 6 points pre-Kessel – 6 goals and 14 points post-Kessel

Niklas Hagman – 6 goals and 9 points – 8 goals and 12 points

Jason Blake – 1 goal and 7 points – 3 goals and 10 points

Stajan and Ponikarovsky’s jump in points come as a direct result of playing on the top line with a talented scorer like Kessel. Hagman and Blake benefit from the fact that team’s top defensive pairings and two-way forwards are now concentrated on stopping Phil.

Brian Burke stated unequivocally that his first concern in revamping the Leafs roster was to get tougher and more physical. However, slamming bodies and busting head won’t win games unless someone’s putting the puck in the net. On Monday night, I think we got a good look at how a physical team can have success. The Leafs dominated the Thrashers physically and ended up reaping the rewards on the scoreboard. While Kessel was held to one assist against Atlanta, he had a number of great passes throughout the night that could have gone for goals – his breakaway pass to Grabovski a primary example.

Phil Kessel brings more than just 30+ goals to the Leafs. He brings them something they haven’t had in a long time – a player with a history of success at all levels of play, and he’s a fresh face in a locker room of Leafs that have maybe grown too accustomed to losing. And that may be the most important thing of all.

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