12 Burning Questions: Will Phil Kessel Establish New Scoring Heights?


In part six of his 12 burning questions series, Derek Harmsworth takes a look at Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, and whether he can hit the 40 goal plateau.

While January 31st 2010 will go down as a day Leafs fans will never forget as the Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Fredrik Sjostrom, and J.S. Giguere in the span of about two hours, the date of September 18th, 2009 will also be remembered, yet highly debated, and much scrutinized.

It was on that day in September, following a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, that Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke got his man.  After lots of rumours throughout the year, including one that involved Tomas Kaberle going the other way, Burke signed off on a deal with the Boston Bruins that landed him American born sniper Phil Kessel.

The move would be, and continues to be, highly debated amongst those in Leafs Nation, and in the ranks of the National Hockey League in general.  The return package that went to Boston will continue to be talked about for years to come.

The Leafs, in exchange for the services of Phil Kessel, traded away two first round picks, and a second.

Of course the verdict will not be out on this trade for potentially years to come, but it would appear that Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins made out like bandits, selecting Tyler Seguin with the second overall pick this past June, and grabbing Jared Knight in the second round, all with draft choices that originally belonged to Toronto.

Still, one can easily argue that the Maple Leafs didn’t make out too bad either.

Once touted one of “the next ones”, and often referred to as the “American Sidney Crosby” during his junior career, Kessel was a top prospect in the years leading up to his draft, but fell to 5th overall on selection day.  Immediately following the trade, the Maple Leafs locked up Kessel to a five year deal that immediately solidified his status as franchise cornerstone with the team.

And while Kessel missed all of training camp and the first month or so of the season recovering from a shoulder injury, he returned to the Leafs in November, on the 3rd in a  game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Though he was able to record a career high ten shots, and was all over the ice, he was unable to record a point.

Despite missing time to start the season, which left him behind the eight ball in terms of his conditioning, Kessel still rebounded to pace the Leafs offensive attack, netting a 30 goal season for the second consecutive year.  Playing with young and largely unproven linemates, Kessel proved that he can be a dominate force with the puck, and will continue to be counted on in the Leafs offensive scheme.

This year Kessel comes into Leafs camp with a few more offensive catalysts riding shotgun alongside him, something that should take the pressure of him a little bit, and allow him to play his game more comfortably.

The Maple Leafs went out and acquired Kris Versteeg, a scoring forward formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks, a player who’s wristshot certainly gives Kessel a run for its money.  He should also help him on the powerplay as well.

They also signed Colby Armstrong as a free agent, a player who is more known for his scrappy play than anything, but there is no doubt “Army” is comfortable playing with top line players and talent, as he cut his teeth in the league playing for stretches with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh with the Penguins.

There is also the Nazem Kadri factor, the potential for Jerry D’Amigo to crack the lineup, and don’t forget Tyler Bozak, one year older, one year wiser.

There are times when Kessel appears to make the game effortless, and many in the Leafs organization point to the fact that he is still a young man himself, and at the age of 22, the case could very well be made that he hasn’t even hit the peak of his offensive potential, a scary thought when talking about someone who already has two 30 goal seasons under his belt.

Leafs Nation, for the most part, has been enamored with Kessel, who possesses a quick, accurate wristshot, and lightning quick speed to push the attack for the Leafs.  And when it comes to his first season in blue and white, he certainly set the bar quite high for himself.

A 30 goal campaign is nothing to sneeze at, considering he was behind the eight ball most of the season due to missing training camp and a month of playing time.  He also went through a stretch in December where he couldn’t find the back of the net.

Putting all those factors together seemingly makes his 30 goal campaign that much more impressive.  For it isn’t hard for one to imagine that a full, healthy season, and Kessel may well have matched and surpassed his career high of 36.

With those thoughts in mind, it is easy for Leafs Nation to let their mind wander.  Just what type of goal total will Phil Kessel have this season?

There’s always the chance for a regression.  After all the bar was set pretty high last year, and done so on a team that was going nowhere fast.  The Maple Leafs have designs of being a bit of a spoiler team in the Eastern Conference, and if they are, games will be tougher, and the pressure will be even more intense (although that seems hard to imagine it could get any higher for him.)

However, all signs are, at least on paper, pointing to Kessel to continue his skyward rise in the goal scoring column.  Is a 40 goal season within grasp?  Could he join the likes Of Rick Vaive, Gary Leeman, and Dave Andreychuk, becoming just the fourth player in Leafs history, and the first since Andreychuk in 1993-94 to hit the magical 50 goal plateau?

A full, healthy year in Toronto, new teammates, and improved goaltending which should lead to more competitive games, and one could suggest that it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Kessel to, at the very least, repeat his goal scoring escapades of one year ago.

But should he just be satisfied with a duplicate performance?