Wilson wondering who will play with Phil

TERRY KOSHAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:56 PM ET

AMHERST, N.Y. — Phil Kessel could be just days away from making his Maple Leafs debut and already coach Ron Wilson is wondering.

Who is going to play with the young man who will be pressured to carry the Leafs’ offence on his surgically-repaired shoulder?

“We have Kessel coming next week, so we’re just trying to figure out where Phil is going to fit in,” Wilson said after the Leafs practised at a suburban Buffalo arena.

Wilson said there is “a good chance of that, yeah,” when asked whether Kessel would be ready play on Tuesday night at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kessel didn’t say much as he was hustled to the Leafs’ bus by a team staff member, but acknowledged he has been cleared for physical play in practice.

“It’s a few days away,” Kessel said of possibly pulling on a Leafs sweater for the first time on Tuesday. “I’ll see how it feels. I don’t know yet.”

Kessel’s soft hands will be a hugely welcome touch to a last-place club that has had a hard time finding the back of the net, mustering 24 goals in 10 games. When a defenceman leads a team in scoring, as Tomas Kaberle does for Toronto, it’s a reflection of a group of forwards that’s too thin on most nights.

Last season, Kessel, then 21, blossomed with 36 goals for the Boston Bruins. But Kessel usually had an excellent helper in Marc Savard, one of the more acute passers in the NHL, and there’s no one on the Leafs roster who can match Savard’s skills.

The sword could have two edges for Kessel, who had surgery in May to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his left shoulder. When you’re acquired for two first-round picks and a second-rounder, and immediately sign a five-year, $27-million contract, the spotlight is yours to keep. The Leafs simply have not had a player of Kessel’s talent at such a young age for years.

And as for the lack of goals, don’t expect it to improve tonight when the Leafs take on the Sabres. Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller, who will play for Wilson on the U.S. side in February at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, has been lights out. Among starting NHL goalies, Miller leads the league with a 1.60 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage, both large factors in the Sabres’ 7-1-1 start.

“He is one of the best goalies, and he is proving it this year, which is good for me long-term because of the Olympics,” Wilson said. “Nobody else is beating him and we’re the lowest scoring team in the league. We’ll have to create some traffic and get a little lucky.”

No moves Leafs general manager Brian Burke made last summer set up the club for the future like the additions of Kessel and netminder Jonas Gustavsson. Though Vesa Toskala has been cleared to play, Gustavsson will start tonight and might get the call again tomorrow night in Montreal against the Canadiens when the Leafs finish a five-game trip.

“I’m not even going to talk about that,” Wilson said, cutting off a reporter who dared bring up the notion of a goalie controversy. “If this is a controversy, there is 10 times more controversy in some other cities with regard to goaltenders. Jonas will play (tonight) and we’ll make a decision (about tomorrow) after that.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca


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