Kessel likes new home in Toronto
BOSTON -- On the ice, the words electrifying, jaw-dropping and spectacular are often thrown around to describe Phil Kessel's play with the puck.
There's no other way to describe Kessel off the ice, however, than nonchalant. And that was reinforced Friday afternoon after he practiced with his Toronto teammates at TD Garden in preparation for Saturday's matchup with the Bruins -- the first battle between the two Northeast Division rivals since Kessel was dealt to Toronto on Sept. 18.
"Obviously it's a little different than normal game but I'm just going to approach the same as a normal game. I'm going to go out there and play hard and try to win a hockey game," he told a media throng in the dressing room down the hall from the one he called home for his first three seasons in the NHL.
While the 22-year-old forward is treating his return to the Hub with indifference, one thing he's still adamant about is that he never requested a trade out of Boston. Kessel was a restricted free agent and couldn't come to terms with the Bruins on a new contract. After the trade, Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli explained that Kessel and his representatives had not been willing to negotiate and that Kessel personally asked to leave Boston.
In his opening remarks to the Toronto media after he arrived north of the border, Kessel rejected that claim and still does to this day.
"I think they went in a different direction. They spent their money in other ways," Kessel said. "Obviously, in the end it didn't work out. I never asked for a trade. I love this city, I love the fans, and it didn't work out in the end."
Kessel, who was sidelined after offseason shoulder surgery at the time of the deal, made his Leafs debut at the start of November and to this point has tallied 15 points (10 goals) in 15 games. After starting the season 1-7-4, the Leafs are 7-5-3 with Kessel in action.
And on a team that features just three players who have played 15 or more games with a plus/minus on the positive side, Kessel is a plus-5. Kessel was asked if he can credit his time playing under Boston's coaching staff for helping him tighten up his defensive play.
"I don't think I've ever really been a minus player in my career. Obviously I'm more of an offensive player, but I don't think too many teams score on the lines I play on. I don't know if they do," said Kessel.
Well, that's not entirely true because Kessel was minus-12 as a rookie and minus-6 in his second NHL year, his first under head coach Claude Julien. Last season, on a Bruins team featuring some gaudy plus/minus numbers, he was a plus-23. Those stats aside, it didn't take a scout's eye to notice that Kessel didn't always backcheck hard, shied away from contact and did a couple other things that made him an imperfect fit for the Bruins and Julien's style of play. Those deficiencies were also what -- trade demand or no trade demand -- kept the Bruins from lavishing Kessel with a contract that would've eaten up too much of their salary cap space.
The Leafs had no such qualms about Kessel's play, as evidenced by the bounty they paid in the trade (first-round picks in 2010 and 2011) and the $5.4 million per year deal with which they locked up Kessel for five seasons. Kessel says he loves his new city and fans and that playing for Ron Wilson has allowed him more freedom.
"I'm allowed to play my game more," he said. "I like playing for Ron. He lets me play my game more and try some different stuff.
"I was a little restricted [in Boston]," he continued. "But that's part of the game. Different teams have different strategies and you work around it."
With a talent like Kessel at his disposal, Wilson said he sees no reason to pull back on the reins.
"The Bruins are a much deeper, different team than we are. I'm not going to handcuff Phil. ... I've always had success with guys of that ilk," said the Leafs bench boss. "I've had a lot of 50-goal scorers or made 50-goal scorers out of people. You can't ask everybody to be checkers and shot-blockers and penalty-killers. ... You have to give people like Phil a little bit more freedom because of the unbelievable skill set that they have. He does things nobody else on our team can even come close to doing. So why would I harness that and kill that spirit that he has?
"And then all of a sudden when you're letting a guy like that do stuff and you get a little return, 'Come on, Phil, you've got to backcheck a little bit harder.' Which he's been doing. He's a plus player on our team, one of the few, and then all of a sudden you see other guys being a little more creative. And I think that's why all of a sudden we're starting to score more, because we're feeding off of some of the little things that Phil does."
Kessel has found recent chemistry on a line with center Matt Stajan and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. Even if Kessel won't get caught up in the hoopla involving his return to Boston, his cohorts are treating their date with the Bruins with a little more importance.
"I think any time you come back to a team you played with your whole career, was drafted by, had a couple playoff runs with, obviously there's going to be excitement for him. But he's a pretty laid-back guy and talking to him, it's just another game," said Stajan. "I don't think he thinks anything more of it. But as his teammates, we want to make it a good night for him. We know that deep down, even if he may not show it, it's got to be a special challenge for him to come back here."
The first time the Wisconsin native returned to his home state in Minnesota Golden Gophers garb to face Wisconsin, Kessel scored a goal and then made a hush gesture with his finger to his mouth to his one-time fans turned enemies. There's no telling what he might do in his Boston return, even if he still counts Bruins Blake Wheeler, David Krejci and Marco Sturm among his good friends.
The only guarantee is that between the boards Kessel will create some drama to enjoy, and then away from the rink he'll downplay it.