Phil Kessel has 19 goals and 35 points in 52 games for the Maple Leafs this season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
So if things come to a head between Phil Kessel and Ron Wilson in The Center of the Hockey Universe™, who do you figure will ultimately emerge from the mud fight on top?
It says here Kessel wins. By default. The Leafs can always fire Wilson and replace him with someone just as condescending and ill-tempered - and, apparently, as disliked by his players. But there’s absolutely no way GM Brian Burke is going to be able to drive Kessel out of town, as much as he would probably like to. No other GM in the league is going to take on that contract.
The line on Kessel is that he has played 122 games in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform and has scored 49 goals and 89 points and is minus-30. Not abysmal totals for a guy playing in his situation, but tell us this: Has Kessel scored a single important goal in a Maple Leaf uniform? Has he made the players around him better as opposed to expecting to be surrounded by more talented teammates?
No and no. But that didn’t stop Kessel from carping about his situation Sunday afternoon when responding to his benching in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night. No fewer than five times Kessel talked about requiring some sort of change. He looked like a beaten man, certainly not one who looked intent on changing his fortunes himself.
“It’s not working,” he said. “Obviously, hopefully it changes, but like I said it might not.”
In response to another question: “Like I said, it might not be working out here. What can you do, you know?”
The Leafs just have to be thrilled that the player in which they placed so much hope, money and term of contract is so utterly willing to pack it in. There were no answers from Kessel, no accountability on his part and no willingness to take any ownership over doing something to make it right. That it comes in a season in which Kessel is making $6 million in cash – with a $5.4 million cap hit – makes it all the more difficult to fathom.
This is certainly not the kind of player Burke was expecting to get when he dealt away the future and signed Kessel to a five-year, $27 million deal in 2009. But it is the kind of player he should have expected. Kessel has never had the reputation of being a player who could be either the on-ice or inspirational leader for any team, but asking him to do so on a bad team with so little talent is not only a terrible mistake, it’s not the least bit fair to him. You can’t blame Kessel for taking the money and the term, as ill-equipped as he was to accept the responsibility and burden that came along with it.
Have the Leafs done an adequate job of surrounding Kessel with the kinds of players who would allow him to be as effective as he can be? Of course not, but Mats Sundin played for years in Toronto without adequate wingers and it didn’t stop him from being the face of the franchise, its best player and the one who had no problem accepting the burden of leadership and accountability.
Kessel will never be that kind of player and he proved that beyond any doubt with his comments Sunday afternoon.
Reason No. 1,257 why the culture of hockey is twisted. Some clown named Jamie Fiesel recently received a two-game suspension from the Saskatchewan Junior League.
And what did he do to earn his two-game ban? Upset with the officiating in a game involving his Melville Millionaires, coach Fiesel threw several sticks javelin-style onto the ice while players from the opposing team skated by, pretended he was blind by covering his eyes and walking down the ice using one of the sticks as a cane and held out his arms to the crowd while leaving the ice surface after his ejection.
No doubt at some point soon, this Don Cherry wannabe will talk about how sorry he is, how his emotions got the better of him during the heat of battle and how, really, we should all understand that these kinds of ridiculous things happen in hockey more than other sports because of the high level of emotion involved. How else can you explain this guy getting a measly two-game suspension?
After all, Abbotsford Heat coach Jim Playfair was fined and not suspended by the American League last season after a tirade in which he smashed two sticks over the boards and ripped off his sports jacket. He later refused to apologize for his actions and went back to the old “hockey’s an emotional game” line that provides a convenient excuse for everything from fighting to head shots.
Don’t hockey people realize that when non-hockey fans see those kinds of things in our sport they just laugh at us?