Phil Kessel (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Is the linchpin of the floundering Toronto Maple Leafs “uncoachable” or just a product of bad luck and a poor team around him? You might be surprised by the answer.It’s the Friday before the All-Star Game, and the NHL is conducting its (almost) annual dog and pony show with (almost) all the best players on the planet. It’s All-Star Media Day™ and Phil Kessel is being a remarkably good sport about it. He’s holding court, and though you get the sense in reality he’s about as comfortable as Richard Nixon during his first debate with John F. Kennedy, he’s doing his best to be whimsical. Clad in an NHL-issued hoodie and a Toronto Maple Leafs hat, he’s sporting what looks like a perpetual five-day growth, never getting shaved nor ever becoming more hirsute. Away from the 63-ring circus that is his existence with the struggling Maple Leafs, Kessel is as comfortable as he’s been in public in, well, forever, even though he tacks “right?” and “you know?” on the end of every sentence as though he’s searching for some kind of affirmation. This is clearly not a Marshawn Lynch moment with a guy who has to be here to keep from getting fined. The way the NHL plays fast and loose with this event in terms of letting players off the hook for attending, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the league had allowed him to stay behind in his hotel room and watch movies all afternoon. The thing is, though, he’s been on the road a lot lately, and he’s seen every movie in the hotel loop of cinematic offerings. “Not the bad ones, though,” he says after some prompting. “Stay away from those.” His inquisitors walk away from the 23-minute all-star gabfest muttering, “What the hell just happened there?” or “His agent must have talked to him.” So much of what Kessel does is judged through the prism of the superficial, and that’s probably not fair. Do Maple Leaf fans care whether Kessel stands in front of the cameras and speaks for his team? Not really. Would he be given more slack if he looked like Patrick Sharp, had the flare of P.K. Subban or rescued stray puppy dogs the way David Backes does? Probably.
The opinions about Kessel as a person are as varied as they are of him as a player. They range from David Quinn, bench boss at Boston University who coached him when Kessel was with the under-17 team in the U.S. National Team Development Program and with the U.S. world junior team in 2005. “I love him,” Quinn says. “He’s a likeable guy, but he’s socially awkward.” Don Lucia, who coached Kessel for one year at the University of Minnesota, calls Kessel, “a reluctant superstar.” To this from a rival team executive: “You can’t argue with his productivity, but he’s an unlikable, miserable son of a bitch. Nobody wants to be around him.”A former teammate with the Boston Bruins who requested anonymity still speaks of Kessel with contempt, saying he was lazy, had no respect for the hierarchy of a dressing room and conducted himself with contempt and indignance. “Coaches have time for his skill, but no time for his personality,” the former teammate says. “He’s a smug, silver-spooned little bastard. And Boston got rid of him. What does that tell you?” Contrast that with the words of Joe Colborne of the Calgary Flames, who played with Kessel as a frequent call-up to the Leafs before his trade to Calgary. “He’s such a great guy and such a good teammate, and the guys love him so much,” Colborne says. “He might come off as a guy who doesn’t care or isn’t a good teammate, but behind closed doors in the dressing room, he’s so loved. The guys love him. I feel badly for him because he’s a much better person than he’s being portrayed.” On the ice, Kessel has blinding, explosive speed. The combination of stick technology and tree-trunk wrists give him a shot coming off the wing that flies off his stick quicker than any other in the game. His wrist shot is better than some players’ slapshots. His quick hands and feet make him one of the most dangerous players in the game when things are going well. Over the past four seasons going into this one, Kessel had 126 goals and 278 points, and since missing the first 12 games of his career with the Leafs because of a torn labrum that required off-season surgery, he has been remarkably durable, playing 438 consecutive games through Thursday. Prior to 2014-15, only Claude Giroux (303), Martin St-Louis (302), Alex Ovechkin (285) and Steven Stamkos (285) had more points over the previous four seasons than Kessel. Only Stamkos (159), Ovechkin (153) and Corey Perry (145) scored more goals than Kessel’s 126 since 2010-11. But the 2014-15 season, which just happens to coincide with the first season of a contract extension that pays Kessel $10 million in salary and sees him occupy $8 million worth of cap space through 2021-22, has been an unmitigated disaster, both for the Leafs and Kessel. In 2011-12, then-GM Brian Burke likened the season “akin to an 18-wheeler going off a cliff,” but that’s beginning to look like a fender bender compared to this season. Under former coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs were five games over .500 and in a playoff spot. In the first 12 games after firing Carlyle and replacing him with Peter Horachek, the Leafs were 1-10-1 and were watching another lost season float away, three points closer to qualifying for the No. 1 overall draft pick and 13 from qualifying for the playoffs. And, naturally, Kessel has become a target. With just two goals and four points in 12 games under Horachek, he was being outscored by defenseman Cody Franson and journeyman checker Daniel Winnik. Under Horachek, the Leafs are supposedly playing the game the right way, but the only problem is that the team that could strike like a cobra and had arguably the quickest transition in the league now gets the puck out of its zone as though pushing a manhole cover. Teams were always wary of getting involved in a track meet with the Maple Leafs under Carlyle. Now a baseball game looks frenetic by comparison. They were mired in the longest losing streak in the almost-100-year history of the franchise, and in the first 725 minutes played under Horachek, they held a lead for exactly 78 minutes and 20 seconds. Never a favorite with the analytics crowd, Kessel doesn’t come out looking good when you crunch the numbers. As of early February, his Corsi rating in close games was just 43 percent, in a league where 50.0 is the average and many of the stars are in the high 50s or low 60s. As expected, in a hockey market where the spotlight always shines more brightly, the knives are flying. Kessel has been labelled as uncoachable, a coach killer who doesn’t work hard enough off the ice and clashes, albeit in a more passive-aggressive way than most, with coaches when he doesn’t agree with their methods. Early in the season, several youth hockey coaches told the Toronto Star that at a coaching clinic, assistant coach Steve Spott pitched a new breakout system to the Leafs that was quickly scuttled by Kessel. “Spott said, ‘Phil hates coaches. He hates Randy. He hates me and I don’t even know him yet,’ ” one of the youth hockey coaches was quoted as saying. It didn’t help Kessel’s cause that after Carlyle was fired, his predecessor Ron Wilson broke his silence Jan. 6 and ripped Kessel and the leadership core of the team. “Some of the core players have failed under two or three coaches, so it’s got to be the players’ fault,” Wilson told Brian Hayes and Jeff O’Neill on TSN Radio. “I wouldn’t really say that clearly, but you’d have to surmise that some of them might be uncoachable.” Now, that’s a lot less definitive than Wilson saying, “Phil Kessel is uncoachable.” Kessel has had four coaches in his NHL career, one of them changing because he was traded from Boston to Toronto. That’s the same number of coaches Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have had with the Pittsburgh Penguins and one fewer than Ovechkin has had with the Washington Capitals. Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall have been in the league four fewer years than Kessel and have been through as many coaches. Kessel has been with the Leafs for two coaching changes, but so have Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, Franson, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and James Reimer. And nobody’s labelling them that way. The worst thing Wilson said about Kessel is something people in hockey already knew, that Kessel goes through bouts of low productivity and sometimes goes missing when he’s needed most. He does have an uncanny knack for going cold at the worst times. Despite Kessel taking more shots per game under Horachek than he did under Carlyle, too many of them are of the playing-catch-with-the goalie variety, where he screams down the wing and fires from the periphery. Last season, as the Leafs went down the sinkhole, Kessel had one goal in the last nine games, and in the annus horribilus of 2011-12, he had just one goal in the last eight games. “Phil’s problem, and I think it’s pretty much the way he’s been his whole career, he’s two weeks on and two weeks off,” Wilson told TSN Radio. “You can’t rely on Phil.” The Leafs are fundamentally flawed because they’ve built their core around Kessel and Phaneuf. One of them wants to make a difference and can’t because he’s no longer an elite defenseman. The other can score 30 goals falling out of bed in the morning, but doesn’t seem to want anything to do with the responsibility, on and off the ice, that comes with being the focal point. Or as his former NTDP coach Quinn puts it: “I don’t know if Phil can be Johnny Carson, but he can be a hell of an Ed McMahon.” So is Kessel uncoachable? Is he a coach killer? Not according to others who have coached him. Carlyle declined to be interviewed for this story, but those who had Kessel before he was in the NHL speak of him in nothing but glowing terms. Even the man who fired Carlyle says Kessel is not a coach killer. “With the number of coaching changes we’ve had, I would not point to Phil and say that’s the reason why it’s happened,” says Leafs GM David Nonis. “It’s been a combination of wanting to change the direction of the team and a lack of team success. And everyone can take ownership in that.” Everyone, management included. The Maple Leafs have made the playoffs once in the past decade, and we all know how that turned out. Their disastrous collapse in Game 7 of the first round against the Bruins in 2013 might have been the worst thing that could have happened to them, because it convinced a lot of people the core of players they had, Kessel included, was destined for greater things. Less than two years later, you have a team in salary cap hell, up against the ceiling with almost no prospects for improvement short of blowing things up. Chances are, Kessel will still be a Toronto Maple Leaf through the summer. And somehow, the two sides are going to have to make this arrangement work for the long-term. Kessel claims he loves playing in Toronto and gets treated well by the fans here. And if he had wanted to leave the boiling cauldron of scrutiny, he was free to do so after last season and probably could have received the same kind of money on a seven-year deal somewhere else. But he re-upped and went all in with the Leafs, and they with him. So perhaps it might be time to stop harping on Kessel’s weaknesses and see what might make it work for both him and the Leafs. Well, let’s start with the players around him. And let’s begin with a comparison. Crosby and Kessel were born 56 days and 1,778 miles apart in 1987. Both were sons of former athletes who had never quite made it as pros. Phil Kessel Sr., was drafted in the 10th round of the NFL draft out of Northern Michigan by the Washington Redskins and played nine games as a backup quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders and had a brief stint in the defunct USFL before retiring. Troy Crosby was a middling goalie for the Verdun Jr. Canadiens and was drafted 240th overall, 239 spots after Mario Lemieux, by the Montreal Canadiens in 1984. Their offspring were both child prodigies. As a 14-year-old with the Madison Capitols bantam team, Kessel scored 176 goals and 286 points in 86 games and became one of the youngest players ever to join USA Hockey’s NTDP. At the 2005 world juniors, Quinn was the assistant coach and boldly said of Kessel, “He’s our Sidney Crosby.” Things have not exactly turned out that way. After winning a gold medal at that world juniors, Crosby has gone on to win a Stanley Cup, two scoring titles, two Hart Trophies, a Rocket Richard Trophy and two Olympic gold medals. Kessel has won the Masterton Trophy for his comeback from testicular cancer in his rookie season and was named top forward at the 2014 Sochi Olympics after scoring five goals and eight points in six games, with six of those eight points against Slovakia and Slovenia. The biggest difference between Kessel and Crosby now is the supporting cast around them, in that Crosby has one and Kessel does not. Crosby has played nearly his entire career with Malkin to back him, has had good veteran players around with a capable D-corps and decent goaltending. The Maple Leafs, by contrast, haven’t had a Norris Trophy winner in their 98-year history and haven’t had a legitimate No. 1 or 2 defenseman playing in his prime since Tomas Kaberle. They haven’t had a top-20 goalie since Ed Belfour and a legitimate No. 1 center since Mats Sundin. (Ironically, when Sundin played in Toronto, there was constant hue and cry over the fact he didn’t have wingers who could complement him, despite the fact he played with the likes of Alex Mogilny, Gary Roberts and Steve Thomas. Now the problem is Kessel doesn’t have a center who can bring out the best in him.) Some teams that have all of those things still can’t win the Stanley Cup. But when you have none of them, your chances of having any kind of sustained success are zero. Even the architect of the team admits as much. “If our team was deeper and stronger, would Phil have more success and not have his faults looked at as much?” Nonis says. “No question that would be the case.” Patrick Kane has Jonathan Toews to do much of the on- and off-ice heavy lifting and is surrounded by Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen and veteran leadership. And Mike Modano, another good comparable, was a wildly gifted player in Dallas who couldn’t bring the Stars any success as the team’s focal point. He only had team success after the Stars brought in veterans such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Mike Keane, Brett Hull and Pat Verbeek. The Jeff Carter who now plays in Los Angeles is far different than the one that floundered in Philadelphia. And why is that? Because of the players around him. Carter is the same player, but the circumstances changed. As Quinn said, Kessel isn’t exactly a “secondary player” in the true sense of the word, but he cannot be the heartbeat of your team. The problem is, particularly when there are only so many dollars a team can spend, he has both the cap hit and term of a franchise linchpin. “He’s not an alpha male,” Quinn says. “And you’re born with that. I don’t know if you can develop into an alpha male.” You look at Kessel and wonder why he doesn’t look more like the chiseled specimens you see in most NHL dressing rooms. Rick Nash, who is having an incredible bounce-back season with the Rangers, looks so much slimmer in the face than he did before this season. Kessel doesn’t project the look of a star athlete, which leads people to believe he’s lazy and unmotivated and hates the weight room. Early in his career with the Bruins, Kessel was making his way out of the rink after practice one day when Bruins coach Claude Julien famously said, “Hey Phil, the weight room is that way.” That reputation has stuck with Kessel throughout his career. He is one of the few NHLers who doesn’t have a dedicated trainer in the off-season and instead spends much of his summer training with the Maple Leafs’ strength and conditioning coaches. There are those who claim Kessel can be a beast in the weight room, that the exercises he does to strengthen his wrists for that lethal wrist shot would crush other men. Kessel said in training camp that he skated only about 10 times last summer and spent a month at his place in Florida fishing and relaxing and getting away from hockey. “I won’t get into specifics,” Nonis says, “but he doesn’t test poorly. There are some areas where he’s middle of the pack, some where he’s at the very top. Some of the tests most teams do, Phil would rank at or near the top because he has some God-given ability and body makeup that you just can’t teach. It’s not like you’re shaking your head at Phil’s conditioning. There are some places he can improve, but there are some places where he’s at or near the top of our group.” Matt Nichol, the former Maple Leafs strength and conditioning coach, has built an empire on training top NHL players and worked with a group of players, including Kessel during the most recent lockout. He said Kessel was never the first one in the weight room but was completely open to instruction, respectful and could do squats using as many weight plates as the bar could hold. “He’s powerful, a very strong guy,” Nichol says. “You could tell that at some point in his life, he put his time in at the gym. He has a lot of horsepower.” Colborne remembers walking into the Leafs weight room at their practice facility one summer day and seeing Kessel in mid-workout. His jaw dropped when he realized how powerful Kessel is. “I saw him do a one-hand clean with 140 pounds,” Colborne recalls. “He was throwing the weight around. You look at his legs and they’re huge. That’s what gives him that explosiveness.” And really, if Kessel were in 10 to 15 percent better shape, how much difference would that really make? Would it make the Leafs goaltending any better? Would it improve their D-corps or make them stronger down the middle of the ice? Quinn jokes that Kessel would be at his stall eating Skittles, and he would have to get Kessel to join the rest of the team in the weight room, but he had no problems with his conditioning. Former Buffalo Sabres coach Ron Rolston, who coached Kessel with the USA hot-housed under-18 team, says he had no problem dealing with Kessel, either in the weight room or on the ice. “We would do a lot of testing before the season and during the season and he was never in a position where we had to tell him to work harder,” Rolston says. “He was always in good shape and played a lot of minutes for us, especially in the key games when we got into international competition. He’s not going to be Rod Brind’Amour, but he has a lot of other gifts that are extremely good gifts.” Kessel might give off the vibe he doesn’t care, but those who know him best maintain a burning competitor lives under the surface, that the constant losing grates on him and that he wants desperately to make the Leafs a winner. Wilson and Jeremy Roenick alluded to the fact that Kessel not only wants to win, but that when things go sideways he gets consumed by it and the harder he tries to get out of a funk, the further he falls into it. At the Sochi Games, everything was going great for Kessel and the American team to start the tournament. They were scoring goals, and the line of Joe Pavelski between Kessel and James van Riemsdyk was the talk of the tournament. There was grumbling about Kessel when things began to slide for the American team, one that failed to score against Canada and Finland in the semifinal and the bronze-medal games, respectively. In the four games against the hockey powers – Czech Republic, Canada, Russia and Finland – Kessel had just one goal and two points. But Zach Parise had only one goal, Patrick Kane only two assists, T.J. Oshie just one goal. Pavelski and van Riemsdyk had the same scoring line as Kessel. If Kessel failed to come up when it mattered most – a reputation that has followed him much of his career – he had a lot of company among his teammates in Sochi. As far as being difficult to coach, the man behind the U.S. bench has nothing but good things to say about Kessel. “Phil had only one goal in mind, and he was ready to do whatever he had to do to help us win,” says Dan Bylsma. “He was 100-percent coachable and ready to do whatever it took. This guy wanted to win, wanted to win in the worst way. I didn’t see any of that (being uncoachable) in Phil.” At the University of Minnesota, Lucia had Kessel during the player’s draft year. Kessel was only 17 when he showed up on campus and was a “true freshman” in college, playing against players in their 20s in a top Div. I league. And he dominated, scoring 51 points in 39 games and finishing second on the team in scoring. When he returned to watch his sister, Amanda, play during the lockout, Lucia said he stopped in at the coach’s office and Lucia noticed a much more mature, engaging person. The shy kid from Wisconsin had grown into a man, and the two had a 45-minute conversation. Lucia is among the coaches Kessel had who saw nothing of the Kessel that is being portrayed now. “Phil came and he worked,” Lucia says. “He worked in the weight room, he worked on the ice, he wanted to get better, he was driven. That’s the player that I saw.” Back at the all-star festivities, Kessel is riffing on everything from the television shows he watches – The Mentalist and American Pickers are two of his favorites – to his affection for the late Bob Suter, the Miracle on Ice hero and father of Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild. Bob Suter coached Kessel from the time he was seven until he was 14. If Bob Suter were alive, he’d probably gush about Kessel, too. There were times when Kessel wanted to quit playing hockey, but Suter pushed him and shaped him into the player and person he has become. “I have stories that if I told, people would be like, no way, right?” Kessel says. “They wouldn’t get away with that today, you know? He pushed you and he made you better, right? As a kid, he wanted what was best for you.” When it comes to hockey, Kessel admits he’s gone cold at an inopportune time, but points out factors beyond his control. “There’s a goalie, too, you have to score on, right?” he says. “They’re the best in the world. It’s not easy to score on those guys.” When it comes to perception, Kessel says he wants people to know one thing: he cares. Even though he says he doesn’t listen to talk radio or read newspapers, he knows what is said about him. Kessel knew exactly what he was getting into by signing with the Maple Leafs for eight more years, and with that kind of compensation comes expectation. When they’re not met, criticism closely follows. “I’m trying every night, you know?” he says. “I’m going out there and playing hard for the guys every night, giving my all. I do try no matter what anyone…I’m out there giving 100 percent of what I have, and some nights are better than others.” This is feature appears in the March 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.