Phil Kessel and Mats Sundin: The Villain and The Hero


Phil Kessel and Mats Sundin are two different styles of players but they know all to well the burden of being the face of the franchise in Toronto.

Neither have accomplished the ultimate goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Toronto – but one of them receives a daily thrashing in the media, while the other was celebrated and revered as a Prince in the hockey capital of the world.

Are they really that different?

The thought of Phil Kessel fishing and enjoying the off-season before coming back to Toronto to score 30+ goals again draws the ire of beat writers in Ontario’s capital. For Sundin, the fishing trips and golf rounds went virtually unnoticed – and almost exclusively ignored.

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Kessel is held to the standard of a captain while never wearing the ‘C’ itself, but which captain are we talking about? Mats Sundin enjoyed his off-season and returned to Toronto for business as usual – just like Kessel has done each year – but has never felt the wrath of the Toronto media.

Different times, perhaps.

Analytics data can only be drawn back to the 2002-2003 season, so for the statistics used over the course of the article it will run a five year span (2002-2003 – 2007-2008) for Sundin and Kessel’s last five years for the Maple Leafs. (all stats from

From a production view, Kessel has produced at an equal or better clip than Sundin at 5v5 over the five years, with the only exception being this season for Kessel and 07-08 for Sundin – we all know the story from January on this year.

Kessel’s 339 points in 376 games (0.9 ppg) over the last five years in Toronto come just short of Sundin’s 379 points in 379 games (1.01 ppg) over his last five as a Maple Leaf – and Sundin’s years came when there was significantly more offense available for the taking.

Can we reference age? Sure, Sundin was older in his last five years but his production level was nearly the same over the previous five years (0.98 ppg) – and still not that far off of Phil Kessel’s statistics during a hard knocks offensive period.

If we switch to possession, and you probably could have assumed this, Mats Sundin’s Maple Leafs teams were a better possession team than Kessel’s in four of the five years – the only exception a 0.4% difference in one season in Kessel’s favor.

Relative to their teams, Kessel and Sundin share similar results as well. Both have two seasons in the five where they were on the negative side, although Kessel’s negative numbers aren’t as bad as Sundin’s.

There’s no denying that Kessel has had to endure a significantly worse roster than Mats Sundin did – so why does Kessel continue to get railroaded by the media?

From a production take, and a possession take, Kessel and Sundin are near equals – yet Kessel continues to be the villain while you’d be hard pressed to find a bad word spoken of Sundin.

The styles of play are what separates the two. Sundin was a center who was also responsible for shutting down the opposition’s top units. Kessel, a winger, is banded together with one of the worst possession players on the Leafs (JVR) and a third line center (Bozak) with no intention on shutting anyone down.

When it comes to public perception, though, their on-ice roles matter little – as does the different letters they wear/wore. They are the faces of the franchise.

The blood should lie more on the hands of Maple Leafs management than on Phil Kessel. There has been no help for him. Since he’s been brought in to Toronto he’s had a ragtag version of teammates and forced to take an inordinate amount of blame.

All Phil Kessel has done since coming to Toronto is score 30+ goals four times and 80 or more points twice with Tyler Bozak as his center – all the while being severely under-appreciated.

Maybe, instead of crucifying him on a daily basis, the media should let Kessel play hockey. Maybe management should have provided him better linemates (including defenders). Mats Sundin was no King at driving possession on his lines, and Kessel may even be better at it on an individual basis.

This isn’t about making Sundin look bad, or making Kessel look good, it’s about giving credit where credit is due.

At the end of the day Phil Kessel is a player being run out of a town that doesn’t appreciate what it has. He really isn’t as bad as everyone wants him to be – and he hasn’t won any less championships than the legend. Phil Kessel can be part of the solution, if you want him to be.

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