Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
Was he really recovering from off-season rotator cuff surgery, or was Phil Kessel’s debut delayed because he was finishing off his classes at the Vatican? After all, the way Leaf fans are talking, Kessel is Toronto’s Savior, a Savior that has great expectations.
Kessel, who was signed as a free agent by Toronto Maple Leafs general Manager Brian Burke, will suit up for the first time for Toronto tonight, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While Kessel was sidelined, the Leafs managed to scrape together a record of 1-7-4, good enough for last place in the NHL standings. Clearly, Kessel is coming into a tough situation, a situation that he will be given the challenge of fixing.
As the saying goes, “the only way to go is up” and, with the addition of Kessel to the lineup, that’s exactly what management and fans alike expect. Given the fact that Burke gave up two first rounders (2010/2011) and a second rounder for Kessel, failure is not an option.
Question is, are the expectations being thrust upon Kessel too high, or can Kessel deliver at the level that is expected?
Kessel is a talented player. As a member of the Boston Bruins in 2008-09, Kessel lit the lamp 36 times, which put him in a tie for 12th overall. It should be noted that Kessel had the benefit of having Ultra-slick Marc Savard as his centre in Boston, a player that posted 63 assists, which ranked him sixth overall.
Kessel will not have the same benefit in Toronto. The money is on Matt Stajan, a player that registered a career high 40 assists in 2008-09, to lineup as Kessel’s centre, at least for now. That said, all this could change if Stajan and Kessel are unable to find some chemistry early on.
All in all, Kessel is arriving in Toronto at a good time. The Leafs are coming off a five game road trip which saw the Leafs post a 1-1-3 record. On the surface, that doesn’t look very encouraging, but, seeing as the Leafs started the season 0-7-1, it’s a start, certainly something to build on.
Defenseman Tomas Kaberle is hot. Kaberle registered two goals and eleven assists in his last five games and is coming off a four point night in Montreal on Saturday night. Kaberle's penchant for passing the puck should serve Kessel well on the power play, they are bound to make sweet music together.
On the injury front, the Leafs finally have goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala back, which seemingly solidifies their goaltending. Other than defenseman Mike Van Ryn, who is out for the season, there are no other injuries to report at this time, which bodes well for the Leafs going forward.
Much like October, November will be no easy ride for the Leafs, but there are, what many like to call, some “winnable” games against the Minnesota Wild (Nov, 10th), Ottawa Senators (Nov, 17th), Carolina Hurricanes (Nov, 20th), New York Islanders (Nov, 23rd), Tampa Bay Lightning (Nov 26th) and the Florida Panthers (Nov, 28th).
The Leafs are averaging a paltry 2.50 goals per game (24th overall). Kessel should add another dimension to the Leafs offense, but don’t expect him to come out gangbusters as, outside of a few practice scrimmages, he has not played an NHL game since the conclusion of the 2008-09 NHL playoffs, so he will need to shake off some rust.
Looking at tonight's matchup, the Lightning are coming off a 6-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last night and are 0-4-1 on the road this season. Steven Stamkos has goals in six consecutive games and has been the Bolts best player to date.
Vincent Lecavalier, once the face of the franchise, has struggled to find his game and, with just one goal, nine assists and a minus -8 rating, will need to pick up his game if the Bolts have any chance at making a playoff run.
If the Leafs are to be successful this evening they will have to contain Stamkos and get off to a fast start. The Leafs have been abysmal in first periods this season, scoring the first goal would go a long way in attacking the Bolts fragile confidence.
To all Leaf fans, I preach patience and understanding. After all, Kessel may be able to part defense’s, but, unlike Moses, he cannot part the sea. Miracle maker? No. Great player? We’ll see...
Until next time,