Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Appreciating Phil Kessel

There are a bevy of moments you can choose from that encapsulates Phil Kessel‘s time in Toronto, but there’s one that sticks out for me at least as a Leaf fan. (Oh in case you didn’t already know, I’m one of them. Sorry.) It was a home game vs. the Calgary Flames at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, a season in which the fortunes of a epic season collapse brought about widespread changes for the Maple Buds. Kessel received a pass from I believe Carl Gunnarsson in stride near the Flames’ zone, beat Chris Butler to the outside and roofed the puck past Miikka Kiprusoff, who was covering the bottom half of the goal. It was almost as if he was daring him to beat him upstairs with Butler draped on him, which Kessel more than obliged in doing.

It was a sequence of events that only a few in the NHL would capitalize in that fashion, but that’s the thing: Phil Kessel is one of the select few who could and did pull that sequence off. By this time next year, there’s a decent chance Kessel will wear a jersey that isn’t a Toronto Maple Leafs’ jersey. With pretty much everyone on the roster including the ushers either being a free agent this upcoming offseason, the roster upheaval can spawn a new era of Leafs hockey, one that’ll ironically enough overlap the Kessel era that began the day Brian Burke nabbed Kessel from the Boston Bruins.

Over his four-year tenure in Toronto, Kessel has evolved into a special hockey player. He’s always been known for having the ability to create chances off individual zone entries. When I posted my project for zone entries, he led the Leafs in shots-per-zone entry during the crucial Game 4 vs. Boston. Below is a table showing his rankings in points-per-hour, goals-per-hour, first assists-per-hour, individual shot-attempt differential (Corsi)-per-hour and shots-per-hour (stats compiled from

P/60 G/60 First A/60 ICorsi/60 Shots/60
Kessel 24th 17th 39th 5th 7th

Phil Kessel has accomplished this despite the fact that he has been on the ice with The Artist Known as Tyler Bozak for 64.9 per cent of the time (there have been numerous columns dedicated to showing how Bozak drags Kessel’s production when on the same line so I won’t bore you with the details).

TSN released their Top 50 players ranking going into this season, voted on by NHL coaches and general managers. I might as well be honest right now, the player rankings TSN (err I should say, these anonymous coaches/GMs) compiled is really the reason why I’m doing this piece. The people voting on this felt Phil Kessel was the 43rd best player in the NHL currently. Here’s a similar table that compares Kessel to some players you can argue he has been close to, if not at the same level the last two seasons:

P/60 G/60 First A/60 A/60 Shots/60
Phil Kessel 14th 22nd 26th 38th 25th
Milan Lucic 21st 84th 21st  9th 252nd
James Neal 24th 7th 103rd 73rd 11th
Nicklas Backstrom 37th 155th 60th 17th 260th
Jason Spezza 12th 59th 5th 8th 124th
Zach Parise 100th 80th 136th 122nd 33rd
Jamie Benn 23rd 25th 132nd 44th 44th
Taylor Hall 9th 40th 7th 16th 17th
Matt Duchene 101st 82nd 148th 121st 110th
Logan Couture 76th 24th 81st 190th 26th

Per-hour numbers should be taken with a grain of salt seeing as it can favour players who don’t play a bunch of minutes and post decent numbers, but even considering that, Kessel more than holds his own offensively vs. his comparables in the NHL. In terms of shot differential/possession numbers, here’s a table showing it on both sides of the ice:

Kessel 48.1 21.400 20.328 1.05 19.864 16.289 1.22
Lucic 56.4 16.938 18.405 0.92 21.933 19.789 1.11
Neal 55.8 17.116 17.598 0.97 21.631 19.049 1.14
Backstrom 51.1 17.910 19.531 0.92 18.750 17.690 1.06
Spezza 53.3 18.634 18.366 1.01 21.265 19.998 1.06
Parise 53.1 15.551 15.962 0.97 17.582 15.803 1.11
Benn 51.4 18.323 18.748 0.98 19.374 17.945 1.08
Hall 51.4 18.626 19.844 0.94 19.675 15.873 1.24
Duchene 50.8 19.454 18.212 1.07 20.061 18.204 1.10
Couture 53.8 17.287 18.680 0.93 20.795 19.342 1.08

The CA/TMCA and CF/TMCF is a barometer into the play of Player X’s teammates, and whether it’s improving with him on the ice or not. Kessel fares second-to-last defensively and second-best offensively. The shock for me when tabulating this was how average Zach Parise was on the defensive side of the coin. He was fifth in CF/TMCF despite being on an above-average Corsi team in New Jersey in 2011-12 while playing with Ilya Kovalchuk and Adam Henrique. Taylor Hall has the biggest effect on his teammates offensively and ranks fourth defensively.

Phil Kessel isn’t a perfect player by any means and I hope you don’t come away from this piece thinking that. In comparison to the other nine players I listed, he doesn’t fare well defensively. He’s not Pavel Datsyuk in terms of two-way play and there will be instances in which Kessel looks lost defensively and gives up the puck rather meekly in his zone.  Having said all that, Phil Kessel is an all-world offensive player who’s one of the best play-drivers in the NHL. He’s probably average defensively, but that’s a phrase that could describe a number of all-world offensive players.

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