Today on the Fan 590's Greg Brady Show, the topic of Phil Kessel was broached. Brady asked the question 'Does Kessel need to do more or does he need help?'.
This led to an unusual realization on my part - I rarely ever talk or write about Kessel. It isn't by design. There was no conscious decision on my part to avoid talking about the Leafs' top forward. So why don't I?
In asking myself this question, I came to the conclusion that it's because Phil Kessel is exactly what I thought he would be.
What He Is
Phil Kessel is a good young hockey player. He's fast, he has a good shot and he has strong offensive instincts. He's a guy that's going to score 35 goals without help and might have peak years of 45 with good linemates.
He's good on the rush and has a much needed shot-first mentality. In his last two seasons (in both of which he played only 70 games), he scored 36 and 30 goals respectively. This year, he's on pace for another 36 goals.
What He Isn't
Phil Kessel is not the kind of player that can carry a team on his own. He isn't responsible in his own zone and, much to Ron Wilson's chagrin, he probably never will be.
For all of his offensive prowess, he isn't great during extended possessions in the offensive zone. Brady rightly pointed out that Kessel doesn't have much of a cycle game to speak of and doesn't forecheck particularly well.
Making the Most of What He Is
If you look at what I feel he is and what I feel he isn't then you might assume that his linemates are largely irrelevent. Not so.
Phil Kessel is able to continue to put up better than 30 goals a season with a team that provides him no real assistance in that regard because he's able to use his speed to streak down the wing, back defenders off (or skate around them) and fire pucks on goal from high percentage areas. This is when Kessel is at his best, which against Tampa Bay he certainly was not, but I digress.
When Kessel isn't at his best, or when the opportunities aren't coming (Kessel is notoriously bad against trap teams where transition offense is almost impossible) is when Kessel needs help - a centreman that can possess the puck, that has good vision and can find Kessel in scoring areas. Kessel's problem, when he isn't on the top of the game, is that he can't get the puck to those areas himself. His shot is still there, so is his desire to score.
To answer Brady's question, we will never get the most out of Phil Kessel until we have the type of player that can elevate his game when Kessel isn't able to bring it himself. Should we expect a player that makes $5.4 million a year to be able to? Maybe. I don't think it's effort with Kessel most of the time though - I think it's an actual inability to break through certain schemes.
I genuinely believe that Kessel brings it almost every night. Until we give him some help though, it wont always look like it.