Kessel knows he's got work ahead of him

Updated: May 19, 2006, 10:18 PM ET
By Risto Pakarinen | Special to ESPN.com

Phil Kessel is an avid golfer, so he knows that in golf, just hitting the ball is not the goal. The goal is a lot farther.

The same applies to the NHL draft. Being picked first is not the goal. The goal is to be a superstar in the NHL. That's why he's not stressed about the June 24 event.

"I have to go to Toronto for the draft tests, see all the NHL clubs, and be there for a couple of days. Other than that, I'll just relax and work out. I will hang out with the family, I haven't been home all year. I'll just play golf and have fun," Kessel said.

Phil Kessel
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesPhil Kessel says he can get physically stronger over the next few months.

Well, he doesn't seem to be stressed about anything, but then again, ever seen a stressed out 18-year-old? Of course, he wouldn't mind being selected with the No. 1 overall pick.

"The focus on the draft is a little weird, but I've always dreamt of playing in the NHL, so it's going to be a great day and should be a lot of fun," Kessel said while playing for the United States at the World Championship in Riga, Latvia.

Phil Kessel was the unanimous candidate for first pick about a year ago, but since then, he has been falling on the different scouting lists, even as far as fifth on the International Scouting preview.

Of course, that doesn't mean Kessel's become a worse player, or even that he hasn't developed this year. This is a player who finished second in scoring for the University of Minnesota as a freshman with 51 points in 39 games, won the team and WCHA rookie of the year awards and finished the season with a strong showing in the World Championship.

What it means is that one tournament can mean so much when players are publicly scrutinized. Competition is tough and the North American media forgot that there are European players to consider, as well.

For some reason, Kessel was considered a disappointment in the last world juniors even though he registered 11 points in five games.

Kessel was pitted against another young player to be drafted this summer, Sweden's Nicklas Backstrom, in a quarterfinal game against Sweden at the World Championship. Backstrom was ranked as the 15th forward in the fall, and has now climbed up to fourth overall, just above Kessel in the International Scouting's reviews.

The Coyotes' Mike Barnett was one of the many NHL GMs watching the two 18-year-olds meet.

"It's always good to see them take their game to another level, the World Championships is a men's tournament, and it's good to see how they can handle this," he said. "Kessel is mobile, he has good speed, and he's very skilled, and that's exactly what the new NHL is all about."

Backstrom helped Sweden beat the United States, but it was Kessel who was the more dominant player. While Backstrom has great hockey sense, he's not as strong as Kessel and can at times be too hesitant, settling to just chase the puck when he knows he can't get it.

Kessel, on the other hand, wants the puck and doesn't shy away from taking the responsibility, although one NHL scout, who wished to remain anonymous, said the flipside of that is Kessel can be selfish at times.

In the World Championship, Kessel started the tournament on the team's fourth line, but by the quarterfinals, he quarterbacked the Americans' power play, wearing No. 8, like his father, Phil Kessel Sr., did for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League some 25 years ago.

Kessel was also one of the four Americans on the positive side of the plus/minus category at the event (plus-2).

No wonder he was pleased with his play.

"It's a better tournament than the world juniors, and it's nice to see how I can play on this level. I think I played a good tournament, and that feels good," he said.

Even Minnesota Wild European scout Matti Vaisanen is confident that Kessel will be one of the top picks, but he's a little more reserved as to how high.

"He's a great stick handler, and a skilled player, but I've seen other players that are more mature," Vaisanen said. "And he needs to get stronger. As it is now, the defensemen just throw him away."

That's something that Kessel is aware of. "Guys on this level are strong. I need to get stronger. I am pretty strong already, but you can always get stronger, and become even better that way," he said.

Had Kessel been available for the draft last year, he would have been a sure bet for the No. 2, said the scout. "I think he's been criticized a bit too much," he added. "The kid's 18, of course he can get stronger. I am sure that he'll be a top 10 scorer in the NHL in years to come."

And that's where Kessel has his aim.

Risto Pakarinen is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.