Phil Kessel: How Long Will the 'Experiment' Last?

Mark RitterSenior Writer IDecember 8, 2010

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 06:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre on November 6, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Over the summer, Toronto Maple Leaf fans debated the merits of general manager Brain Burke bringing in another top six forward. Some felt a winger was of the utmost importance, others (including myself) felt a centre was a bigger need, but everyone agreed more depth was needed.

Those that felt a centre was not necessary felt sophomore forward Tyler Bozak would be able to handle the load on the top line, while others pointed to the emerging Nazem Kadri as being the answer.

Through 24 games, the Maple Leafs had “earned” a record of 8-12-4. The power play was mediocre at best, the penalty kill was a shambles, the offense was anemic and the overall forward group was being criticized for a lack of results.

Throughout the first 24 games, head coach Ron Wilson tweaked his top-six forwards a number of times, playing Kris Versteeg on the first, second and third lines.

Spotting Kadri on the first and second unit, as well as moving Nikolai Kulemin onto the first line for a couple of games. Not to mention a number of other moves designed to get his squad going.

Needles to say, most of those moves failed. Bozak never got going and Kadri was moved to the wing on more than a few occasions.

With Wilson running out of options something had to give, so, amongst criticism from the fans and media alike, Wilson looked to his biggest star to right the ship, asking Phil Kessel to play centre.

To be fair, Kessel had volunteered to make the move to centre, but it was Wilson’s final decision, a decision that, thus far, has helped net the Maple Leafs two straight wins against the sixth ranked Boston Bruins, followed by a comeback for the ages against the then top-ranked Washington Capitals.

In both games, the Maple Leafs played with a confidence that we Leaf fans have rarely seen this season—playing a more aggressive offensive game, winning two shoot-out games in the process.

Playing on a line with Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg, Kessel has not looked out of place at centre, accumulating just over 43 minutes of icetime, scoring the shootout winner against the Boston Bruins, notching an assist in the game against Washington and winning a respectable 42 percent of his faceoffs.

The trio of Kessel, Versteeg and Armstrong has looked energized, confident and, at times, dominant against two of the better clubs in the NHL.

Not lost in all of this is the trickle down effect the Kessel move has had on the club. Bozak and Kadri (whom many suspected were over their heads in first and second line centre roles) were able to be bumped down into the third and fourth line centre roles, respectively, which, to date, seems to be paying dividends.

The addition of Colby Armstrong to the lineup is not lost on me at all, but when everything is said and done, it appears that moving Kessel to centre looks to be the move that is making the biggest difference.

It remains to be seen just how long the Kessel “experiment” will last, but with the club having success and Kessel looking right at home, I suspect he may remain at centre for the rest of the season—perhaps even his career?

Until next time...