When the season started off with a slump for the Toronto Maple Leafs, LeafsNation fell into a panic.
All of a sudden they were last in the league, the only team without a regulation win, and without a first round draft pick this year or next.
What they were left with was a question mark, a question mark named Phil Kessel.
For the first time in a long time, the Leafs had an acquisition that no one knew what the Leafs were getting. Kessel was coming off of shoulder surgery, so there was the lingering question as to whether or not he’d be back at full-strength this year, or would it take a season?
There were also questions about his age, just not the age-related questions fans were used to asking.
Unlike previous pickups Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, or Ron Francis, Kessel came in closer to his draft year than his Hockey Hall of Fame induction year, which offered a ray of hope that hadn’t been seen in these parts for a long time.
There were also the concerns about how a quiet, tame guy like Kessel would handle the voracious fans and media of Toronto—a city so starved for quality hockey that it would throw Kerry Fraser a "Get Well Soon" party if the official was balding (but only if it meant a few wins for the Leafs).
Just a few weeks into the Phil Kessel era and the changes have been swift.
Kessel has come in and used his speed to create chances, shot the puck from just about anywhere, and scored goals. He’s added an additional threat to a power play that needed it like Jared from Subway needs SlimFast and he’s become that player for the Leafs; the kind of player that the opposition needs to take notice of if they want to stop the Leafs.
Teams and fans alike have taken notice as well. Then again, when Kessel was the only Leaf to score in over 100 minutes (A span of three games) of hockey action on Saturday night (A streak Francois Beauchemin broke), it’s hard not to notice him.
As if the fact that Toronto cashed in their future on the Madison-native wasn’t enough to give him full-share of the Toronto spotlight, the fact that he’s played more games than just one Leafs’ regular, Jamal Mayers, and is on pace for a higher point total than anyone not named Tomas Kaberle, has certainly done the trick.
But for all of the on-ice attributes that Kessel has brought to the team, the question still remains: Who’s going to play with him?
He’s spent time with John Mitchell and the two have combined for four goals and one assist when they’ve been on the ice together. Along with that, the highest-profile player he’s skated alongside is Jason Blake. The two shooters have totaled three goals and two assists.
So far, Blake has worked out well as a linemate, but do the two pass the puck enough for each other's liking? So far, Blake has 62 shots on the season—in less than half the games Blake has played, Kessel has 41. They also combined for over 500 shots last year.
While Blake is on pace for a career-high in assists (43), each may need their own play-making center to help them out.
For Kessel, his most successful linemate and centerman has been Matt Stajan. When Stajan and Kessel have been on the ice at the same time, the pair have a combined four goals and four assists—the highest scoring forward tandem of Kessel and another Leaf.
For Stajan, this must be a dream come true. After spending years going in and out of the dog house, shuffling up and down between first line and fourth line duty, Stajan has found a role he’s thriving in alongside Kessel. If he wants to stay in the set-up man’s role, Stajan will have to continue to perform,which could be a very realistic goal.
But there’s always the question of what next? Following this year, Matt Stajan is an unrestricted free agent. Depending on the thoughts up top,Toronto could hold on to the lifetime Leaf pass this year’s trade deadline and then concern themselves with whether or not to re-sign him.
However, Stajan is the kind of player that if the Leafs aren’t in the playoff picture, he could have some teams waiting at his door. If that happens and Stajan finds himself on a playoff-bound somewhere else, the Leafs need someone else to step up.
One of the obvious choices to play with Kessel in the future is first round draft pick Nazem Kadri. Currently, the London Knight is sitting at a point-per-game average in the Ontario Hockey League, but is displaying more goal-scoring panache than anything.
However, Kadri’s career numbers seem to indicate that he’ll slide back into a playmaker role, as he’s nabbed 116 assists in his OHL career. The playmaking ability of Kadri is the kind of talent that’s proven to be dominant alongside Kessel before, as so much has been made of the impacts that Marc Savard had on Kessel last year.
Along with Kadri, there’s another player who may work out alongside Kessel who’s already on the active roster.
Although he’s only got one point alongside Kessel this season, Alex Ponikarovsky (Combined for two points when they’re on the ice together) is the perfect big body presence to stick alongside a sniper and a play-maker. Like Matt Stajan though, Ponikarovsky is a free-agent at season’s end and the likelihood of him sticking around will depend a lot on this season.
If Poni sticks around, it’s the old adage of something Old (Poni), something new (Kadri), something borrowed (Kessel—from the Bruins), and something Blue. If we have to go through what the ‘blue’ is, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention.
But if Ponikarovsky leaves, who would be an ideal big body to go alongside the potential duo of Kadri and Kessel? Why not a member of the Super Soph line: Viktork Stalberg or Christian Hanson.
Both Hanson and Stalberg have the ideal size for the position at 6’3/210lbs and 6’4/228lbs respectively. They are also young (23 years old) and like Kadri, have the opportunity to grow alongside Kessel and develop a rapport. At the AHL level, they’re producing as well as Hanson is one of the top-producing rookies in the AHL this year, while Stalberg is a point-per-game player since being sent down.
Hanson would also bring a strong defensive mindset and two-way responsibility that would be great to have on the wing of this potential line.
For the Leafs, Phil Kessel is going to be just a part of the future. They’ve still got pieces to add while finding places to put them and these are just a few possibilities.
Having this one piece in place however, is starting to look like a rosy start for the Leafs.
Bryan Thiel is an NHL Community Leader and Senior Writer for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out his previous work in his archives, and on Hockey54—The Face of the Game.