Phil Kessel: 10 Reasons 2011-12 Will Be His Breakthrough Year
If this slideshow was created a month ago, it would be comprised of pure speculation. Now that we're a month into the season, Phil Kessel and the Toronto Maple Leafs have provided us with hard evidence that perhaps they should be taken more seriously this year.
At the time of writing, the Leafs are second overall in the entire league, and Kessel is tops in the league for goals and points.
Can Kessel continue producing in November, or will he copy what the Bruins did in October and go into hibernation?
A lot of questions are surrounding him and the Leafs for sure, but there is reason to believe that he will have a breakthrough year in 2011-12.
Getting Picked 30th Wasn't Good Enough
Getting picked 30th overall at the All-Star Game isn't a bad thing, but it's bad if you think you can do a lot better.
The draft should return for the 2012 All-Star Game, and if Kessel can stay relatively consistent all year, you can bet he'll be picked a lot higher than 30th.
Now that he's had a taste, I'm sure he'll want more.
Phil Kessel is starting to look like a member of the team.
He's not a one-trick pony who tries to dance around four guys whenever he gets the puck. There was a lot of that going on last year.
You'll notice that Kessel hasn't done a whole lot of toe-dragging this year.
It's partly because he's smartened up and has confidence in his teammates. He understands the importance of teamwork, and it's showing in his game.
It's a confidence killer for goal scorers when they suddenly stop being able to score goals for long periods of time. Conversely, it is a confidence booster for goal scorers when they go on a hot streak.
Well, Phil Kessel is on what you could call a hot streak, and boy is he confident.
And it's not just him, either.
The coaches, management and his teammates are confident in him. He's confident in his teammates, and the Leafs are confident in themselves as a group.
Everyone's feeling pretty good, and it shows in their game.
More Responsible Defensively
I wouldn't label Phil Kessel a two-way forward just yet, but he has improved the defensive side of his game.
Originally thought by many to be a one-sided player, Kessel is starting to show responsible play in all three zones.
It's true that the Leafs are winning games and that he and Lupul are scoring goals, but surely his plus-nine rating is significant.
Was it just me, or did Ron Wilson really call him "Jeff Lupul" in the post-game interview?
And wow, was he ever close to scoring four goals in the game against the Devils. If he had missed the flying puck with his glove, the whistle wouldn't have been blown for a hand pass, and he and Connolly might've been off to the races.
Oh well, a natural hat trick is good enough, I guess.
It's exciting to see Lupul producing at the rate he's going, because it means Kessel isn't the only person on the team that can provide a lot of offense.
Lupul has eight goals and six assists for 14 points in 12 games.
Kessel used to be the guy that everyone passed to, but there's another option now on the same line, which makes the Leafs a much less predictable team.
Now that other teams are realizing that Kessel isn't the only offensive threat, defenders will have to watch Lupul as well, giving Kessel a little extra time and space to move.
Tim Connolly hasn't made much of an impact on the Leafs yet. In fact, despite being the Leafs' No. 1 centre, he might not turn into much of a game -hanger at all.
However, he'll still be a big help to Kessel and Lupul as long as he stays healthy.
Connolly's a fine playmaker and, as everyone has been saying, is a big upgrade at that position.
Although Kessel and Lupul seem to be able to score regardless of who is centering them, it'll definitely help to have a guy like Connolly feeding them.
He's Scoring and Passing
How happy would you be if Kessel finished the season with 50 goals and 20 assists? It wouldn't feel like a breakthrough season if that were the case.
I think it's great that he doesn't just shoot the puck anymore. He's aware that he isn't the only scorer on the team and has been happy to make a play if he sees it.
He's expected to score a lot of goals this season, and I think he'll break his record for goals in a season of 36, but I also think he'll crush his record for assists of 32.
Does 40G, 40A, 80P look about right?
Great Supporting Cast
When Kessel was acquired from the Boston Bruins, he was the lone offensive threat on the team. Now, the Leafs have six legitimate top-six forwards and have a pretty good bottom-six group to round things out.
The pressure of having to carry the entire team is off his back.
Also, when you play on a bad team, your stats suffer. No matter how good your stats were with that bad team, they would definitely improve if you played on a better team.
The Leafs are much better now than they were in 2010-11.
The Spotlight Is Stronger, but Burns Less
For the first time in his tenure as a Leaf, people around the league are saying nice things about Kessel.
He was named October's Player of the Month and all eyes are on him to see if he can carry some of October's momentum into November.
Last year, only Toronto and Boston fans followed him, but now, everyone's watching him.
It's true that Kessel doesn't really like the spotlight, but at least it doesn't hurt to be under it anymore.
The criticisms are largely gone and have been replaced with praise.
Players can say what they want, but public opinion has to affect a player's game to a certain degree.
Kessel's getting a lot of love from fans and the media right now, so that's got to be a boost for him.
He's Just 44 Points Away from His Career High
If you look at his numbers so far this year (12GP, 10G, 10A, 20P), Kessel is almost a third of the way to tying his point total from last year (64), his career high.
He has 70 games to put up a mere 44 points.
He's probably not going to continue scoring at a pace of 1.67 points per game, but he's definitely good for more than 0.63 points per game.
I'm sure Leaf fans would love to see him settle somewhere in the middle at about a point a game. Given all that he has done in a dozen games so far this year, it doesn't seem outrageous to expect he'll pull it off.