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Kessel set to suit up for the Maple Leafs

Posted By Joe Haggerty On November 3, 2009 @ 1:06 pm In General | 10 Comments

It’s clear now that it was first and foremost all about the money for Phil Kessel, and secondly about some measure of respect he didn’t feel from the organization while constantly hearing his name bandied about in trade rumors through three strangely turbulent years with the Boston Bruins.

Phil the Thrill got his wish to escape from Boston and the Spoked B way of doing things, and the 22-year-old scorer savant informed reporters Tuesday afternoon that he will indeed play his first game for the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. Kessel will be riding shotgun with veteran center Matt Stajan and Jason Blake. That’s not exactly the same as skating alongside Marc Savard, but it’s the best that Toronto can muster at this point.

It’s exactly six months since Kessel went under the knife for rotator cuff and labrum surgery in his left shoulder, and the sniper returned a solid 7-10 days prior to previous expectations and timetables.

It’s not the miraculous early return that allowed cetner David Krejci to play Bruins’ Opening Night after undergoing surgery on his right hip, but it also doesn’t sound like a slow, deliberate recovery by a player viewed by those in and around the Boston organization as being “soft” in terms of focus, work ethic and play on the ice. The arrows were released against the 36-goal scorer last summer when it became apparent the big money in Toronto was too good to pass up, but there’s one thing that isn’t under dispute about Kessel’s game: the kid can score.

Kessel is the age of many players either playing or just leaving the college hockey ranks in the United States, and — as one scout said about Kessel when things were heating up — “he’s just a young pup” in terms of hockey development. Former BU defenseman and current New York Rangers rookie Matt Gilroy is one of the heralded youngsters in the league this season, and he is three years older than Kessel. That’s something that seems to escape most people in the Kessel argument. There is a high ceiling for a player that finished 12th in the NHL in goals scorer last season, but the B’s have gambled that No. 81 will never reach a consistent ceiling of 40-50 goals per season.

He won’t be a savior this year for a Maple Leafs team that already appears to be running headlong into a lost season, and it’s not likely he’ll light up the Tampa Bay Lightning in his first game back since the Stanley Cup semi-finals against the Carolina Hurricanes last May.

But Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was never able to properly replace Kessel’s playmaking abilities, and supply the team with the simple threat of throwing a natural goal-scorer on the ice. The B’s have a collection of nice 20-30 goal-scorers, but they don’t have a single skater that strikes fear into a goaltender with their combination of speed and pinpoint shooting.

Perhaps the treasure trove of draft picks shuffled off to Boston in exchange for Kessel will bring another elite scorer into the B’s fold beginning next season, but right now Boston isn’t able to absorb Kessel’s defection with heightened play from Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler among others — and that’s been underscored even more with the loss of Marc Savard and Milan Lucic to injury.

The Bruins have scored 10 goals in their last five games and allowed 10 goals in their last five games, and have been mired dead smack dab in the middle for the entire season. Good enough to avoid any long losing streaks, but just middling enough that they can’t string even two wins together through the first 13 games. That will only get worse should — as unlikely as it may seem – Kessel burst off to a fast offensive start with the Leafs despite missing all of training camp and the first month of the season.

Unfair as it might be, Kessel’s gain would only stir up the masses to begin chanting that familiar New England refrain: “Why can’t we get players like that?”


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