Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Phil Kessel

The most popular explanation for the general suckiness of the Maple Leafs since the 2004* NHL lockout goes something like this: “Leafs fans are so dedicated to the team—so faithful—that MLSE has no incentive to ice a winner.

“The only way we’re going to win,” the theory implies, “is when the fans stop showing up.” Leave it to Torontonians to turn loyalty, the greatest virtue of sports fandom, into a cause for self-flagellation.

It’s those loyal fans, though, who never hesitate to lash Leaf players and management when things go wrong. This season, the whip has often landed on the back of a 23-year-old Madison, Wisconsin-native by the name of Phil Kessel.

To acquire the speedy right-wing sniper from Boston, Leafs GM Brian Burke traded two first round draft picks, a much-maligned move amongst the talk radio and message board chattering classes, who always seem to favour a “slow rebuild,” until the team actually hits the ice, where boo birds chirp at every lacklustre period. (I realize this "Monolithic Fan" is a straw man , let me spear him anyway, OK?) Kessel despite his undeniable technical and physical skills, is streaky, a deficiency magnified greatly in a city where Leafs post-game analysis gets more media space than the Jays, Raptors and Argos combined.

A winning franchise needs a franchise player; basically, a guy who makes the all-star game every year. Kessel has to be that player for the Leafs. Dougie Gilmour** knows he has the the talent. He skates swiftly and rips it in into the top corner. He hasn't had linemates*** all season yet still netted 19 goals.

He displayed his class to me very early this season at the ACC: With the home team up 2-1 late in the third period, the Florida Panthers pinned an exhausted Leafs first line in their own zone; and, just as a tying goal seemed inevitable, Kessel stripped the puck from a Panthers forward, sprinted past his former Bruins teammate Dennis Wideman, and whipped the puck into the top corner with his trademark quick-release wrist shot. It was an all-star play from an all-star player. And in a hockey-obsessed town that hasn’t seen the playoffs in half a decade, Kessel can’t afford to be anything less.

*Some of you will think, “Haven’t the Leafs sucked much longer than this? Like, since 1967?” This isn’t true. The Leafs before the lockout were strong--they finished fourth overall. And I how could you ever, EVER say the Gilmour-era Leafs sucked? If it not for Wayne Gretzky’s NHL Mafia, we totally woulda won the Cup that year.

**I apologize for using the Lord's name in vain.

***Come on, Joey Crabb!


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