Just how long will Phil Kessel and his past life with the Boston Bruins be, if not a sore point, a talking point in Toronto?
Until the Leafs end their five-season slide and make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Until whomever the Bruins select with the picks Leafs general manager Brian Burke gave up to get Kessel are either proven busts or superstars?
The veracity of the argument may wane with time — though don’t bet on that. And with the Bruins coming to town for a sixth and final meeting with the Leafs on Saturday night, Kessel once again is the focus given the struggles of his former team and their stark urgency to get a win.
Kessel, who is the antithesis of a rah-rah guy, should be particularly motivated. In five previous meetings with the B’s, he has yet to score, much to the delight of the TD Garden fans, who booed him every time he touch the puck in the three games played there.
“I’d like to get one, but sometimes they just don’t come,” Kessel said following Friday’s practice at the Mastercard Centre, wincing at the question he had to know was coming.
“I’ve had some chances, three or four breakaways against them, but I haven’t been able to score.
“It’s just one of those things.”
It’s a little more than that, of course, on multiple levels.
The Bruins, who either deemed Kessel expendable or got an offer too good to resist, can’t score for their lives. They have a league low 191 goals and just one 20-goal scorer (Marco Sturm with 21). With just five games remaining, the Bruins have a whopping 77 goals fewer than last season.
While it will be years before either side can claim victory on the deal, the goal-starved Bruins aren’t exactly the clear-cut leaders at this point.
Kessel, meanwhile, has hit 30 goals without the comfort blanket of centre Marc Savard, whose presence some in Boston felt was the key to 22-year-old’s production.
In Toronto, Kessel has played with a handful of different centres, including his current one, Mikhail Grabovski. He has had some lulls, but has still produced.
“You want to win, I played for them last year,” Kessel said of the chance to put a nice dent in the Bruins’ playoff bid. “But it’s another game. If they miss the playoffs, they miss the playoffs. They are good enough to be there.”
Obviously, Kessel hasn’t watched much of his former teammates lately. The Bruins were shut out at home — 1-0 by the Panthers on Thursday — and despite other teams stumbling above and below them, can’t nail down the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The fact that the “race” in the East seems to be slammed into reverse only adds to the frustration of another lost Leafs season. Each morning when coach Ron Wilson peruses the standings, it must hurt.
Whether it’s the Bruins, Habs or Flyers — each of which face the Leafs down the stretch — none are exactly lengthening their stride in the dash for the wire.
“All the teams (in the race), their weaknesses are showing,” Wilson said. “Philadelphia’s goaltending has been questionable. Boston has struggled to score all season long. I don’t know if it’s a turtle race, but (those teams) are about where I thought they would be.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get a better start because it looked like 85 or 86 points in the East would make it.”
In fact, for the first time since the 2002-03 season, an Eastern Conference team (or two) will graduate to the post-season with fewer than 90 points. The Leafs can max out with 79 if they win their remaining four games, which would land them two points less than last year.
A modest, rather than miserable, October — a month in which Kessel missed all 12 games — and the Leafs would be playing for far more than the latest evaluation of a trade in which there may never be a clear winner.