BOSTON ó In a nine-minute scrum with reporters from his old and new hockey homes Friday ó a feature-film length chat for the normally reserved Phil Kessel ó the Maple Leafs forward mostly played it safe.
He loves Boston. He loves the fans here.
He loves Toronto. He loves the fans there.
He didnít ask for a trade. Heís happy he got traded.
But if there was a sliver of a shot in advance of Saturday's much-anticipated first game against his former team, it was directed at Bruins coach, Claude Julien, whose defence-first philosophy didnít always play well with the sniper mentality in Kessel.
ďIím allowed to play my game more (in Toronto),Ē Kessel said amid the strange surroundings of the visitorís locker room at the TD Banknorth Garden. ďI love playing for (coach Ron Wilson) and trying some new things.
ďI was a little restricted (with the Bruins) but thatís part of the game. Different teams have different strategies and you work around it.Ē
If the shackles truly are off, Kessel he has responded in style.
After missing the first 12 games to recover from off-season shoulder surgery, the Wisconsin native has scored 10 goals in 15 games and surely and steadily is building chemistry with his regular linemates, Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Though he wonít get a chance to prove it this season because of the missed time, he is on a 55-goal pace if carried over an 82-game season.
Part of the reason Kessel has made such a smooth transition is that Leafs coach Ron Wilson has allowed him to play his own game. While the Bruins had more depth and could spread out their scoring, the Leafs donít have that luxury.
So as he has worked his way into game shape, Wilson has increased Kesselís ice time gradually to the point where he is playing three to four minutes more than he did for much of his career as a Bruin.
ďIím not going to handcuff Phil,Ē Wilson said Friday. ďHe does things that nobody else on our team can even come close to doing, so why would I harness that and kill that spirit that he has?
ďIíve always had success with guys of that ilk. Iíve made 50-goal scorers out of people. You canít ask everybody to be checkers and shot blockers.Ē
Kessel may not be a big talker off the ice, but thatís not to say he is an introvert. He clearly was the most lively of an energized Leafs bunch at Fridayís practice, chirping with his teammates and Wilson looking very much at home in his own skin and at his old rink.
ďHeís just a kid, whose living the life having fun,Ē Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger said.
ďHeís a hockey rat, thatís what I see with Phil,Ē Wilson said.
As for Saturday being a routine stop in a long NHL season ó as Kessel tried to sell Friday through an uncomfortable smile ó donít buy it for a minute.
ďItís not just another game for him,Ē Leafs forward Jason Blake said. ďItís a big game. And donít be surprised if he has a big night.Ē