Toronto Maple Leafs: Why This Is a Make-or-Break Season for Phil Kessel

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2012

Phil Kessel is coming off a 37-goal, 82-point season.
Phil Kessel is coming off a 37-goal, 82-point season.Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Phil Kessel is going to have to do a lot more than score goals this year with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is an offensive player of note, having scored 30 or more goals the last four seasons, three of which have been with the Maple Leafs. Kessel skates like the wind and when he finds a small breach in the opposing defense, he can take advantage and rip off a hard shot in an instant.

He is a sniper who will find his target.

He will have a cap hit of $5.1 million for the Maple Leafs; and they have failed to make the playoffs in any of his seasons with Toronto. He may have the golden wheels to score goals, but he is limited as a defensive player (source: Steve Buffery, Toronto

Much of that may be due to a lack of concern with that part of his game—in his three seasons with the Leafs, Kessel has been minus-8, minus-20 and minus-10.

If Kessel is going to continue to play as if defense is an afterthought, that's not going to be a positive for head coach Randy Carlyle as he begins his first season in Toronto.

Carlyle preaches defense from all his teams as that philosophy helped his Anaheim Ducks win the Stanley Cup in 2007, his second year as Anaheim's head coach.

Carlyle also needs to see some leadership from Kessel.

The former Boston Bruin has established himself as a player with a star's talent. In the NHL, that means doing more than firing a wrister up to the top corner and collecting a fat paycheck.

It means becoming one of the leaders in the locker room (source: The

That often means saying the things that need to be said and being transparent in your desire to help your team win. Some players may not be comfortable in making a fiery speech to teammates. That does not mean leadership is not required, though.

Great players lead by their actions.

That means giving their all for 60 minutes and not hanging their heads and going into a sulk.

Kessel has not always been so pure in that area, going back to his days with the Bruins.  Zdeno Chara tried to let him know and so did his other teammates, but the message didn't get across then.

It still hasn't gotten across even though Kessel has a much higher profile with the Maple Leafs than he did with the Bruins.

When the Leafs acquired Kessel prior to the start of the 2009-10 season, general manager Brian Burke made him the cornerstone of the franchise.  Kessel has flourished as a goal scorer but he has not grown in any of the other areas of the game.

In many ways he has been a disappointment.

When (if) the season gets underway, Kessel is going to have to give more of himself to his teammates and his coach. It's one of the most important seasons of his career and his game must show the growth that Burke was expecting when he brought Kessel aboard.