School's out for Kessel

ERIN NICKS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 5:34 PM ET

A top NHL prospect made a surprising decision this week, and for a change, the name involved was not Evgeni Malkin's.

Phil Kessel signed a multi-year deal with the Boston Bruins on Thursday, thereby shunning the recent trend of prospects selecting to remain with their American university teams.

The incentives for potential NHL rookies to continue their post-secondary school studies run the gamut. There are obvious benefits to staying in school and completing their education -- professional hockey careers are not infinite, and few are cut out for media work after retirement.

Then there's the reason recently invented by former USC QB star (and now-Arizona Cardinal) Matt Leinart: "I'm just having a good time in school."

But the most sensible motivation (at least in respect to a hockey career) would involve staying to improve, mature and polish their game.

How ironic, especially when you remember that one of the biggest knocks on Kessel of late involved these three qualities.

To be fair, Kessel's potential appears to be enormous. Kessel spent only one season at the University of Minnesota, but his year as a Golden Gopher was a productive one. The 18-year-old amassed 51 points in 34 games, and was named WCHA's Rookie of the Year.

The youngster from Madison, Wis., has been called "The American Sidney Crosby" and was long considered to be a lock for the No. 1 pick at this year's Entry Draft.

It's difficult to pinpoint where the criticism officially began, but most would consider last year's world junior championships to be a turning point.

You know expectations are high when you lead an international tournament in scoring with one goal and 10 assists -- yet the critics seem underwhelmed. Five of Kessel's points did come at the expense of a non-threatening Norwegian team, but as it turns out, offence wasn't the whole issue.

With the spotlight burning so bright, Kessel attempted to accomplish much on his own, and for the most part, was unsuccessful. He seemed unwilling to depend on his teammates to shoulder the load, and would rather face opponents one-on-one, often with disappointing results.

Critics at the time also chastised Kessel for his stunted creativity -- a frustrating revelation for scouts who were aware of his superior puck handling and mobility skills.

However, some Kessel supporters provided an interesting hypothesis as the draft approached. They suggested that the potential No. 1 never slipped, but instead, remained static while others such as Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom showed a noticeable improvement in development. This in turn, allowed both players (as well as Eric Johnson and Jordan Staal) to leapfrog over Kessel at the Entry Draft.

A curious theory to be sure, but when you recall the praise for Phil Kessel leading up to the world juniors, followed by the revelation that he may not be as far along in his development as originally assumed, it does cast some doubt.

There is no question that Phil Kessel is a talented player. However, if there are questions surrounding his playmaking ability, and willingness to function as part of a whole, you begin to wonder how he will fare in the NHL.

By way of the rookie two-way contract, the Bruins can send their young prospect to Providence to receive the grooming he requires. But at the same time, the signing, regardless of Kessel's eventual location next year, has started the clock on his contract. If the centre turns out to be a late bloomer, then the Bruins could end up renegotiating his deal long before they witness Kessel's true potential.

The elite players know that there's always something to learn, no matter where you are. Phil Kessel could have been one of the young prospects to stay in school, but instead, he chose to buck the trend.

Ironically, it seems like the Bruins' prospect is the one who could benefit the most from some pre-NHL education.

NO CONTENDER: Apologies for looking a gift horse in the mouth, but could TSN care any less about ESPN's The Contender? There are no promotions for the show and it airs at a different day and time each week.

PING PONG TANTRUM: Chen Qi, a Chinese table tennis player, was sent to weed cucumber patches by his coach after he threw a tantrum during a game. We're thinking Bill Parcells should take a hint from Qi's coach, and send Terrell Owens to hand-wash the Tuna's "mansieres" whenever T.O. throws a hissy fit.


Videos

Photos