Kessel back to Boston

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:42 PM ET

BOSTON — In a nine-minute scrum with reporters from his old and new hockey homes Friday — a feature-film length chat for the normally reserved Phil Kessel — 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 didn’t ask for a trade. He’s 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 didn’t always play well with the sniper mentality in Kessel.

“I’m allowed to play my game more (in Toronto),” Kessel said amid the strange surroundings of the visitor’s locker room at the TD Banknorth Garden. “I love playing for (coach Ron Wilson) and trying some new things.

“I was a little restricted (with the Bruins) but that’s part of the game. Different teams have different strategies and you work around it.”

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 won’t 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 don’t have that luxury.

So as he has worked his way into game shape, Wilson has increased Kessel’s 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.

“I’m not going to handcuff Phil,” Wilson said Friday. “He 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?

“I’ve always had success with guys of that ilk. I’ve made 50-goal scorers out of people. You can’t ask everybody to be checkers and shot blockers.”

Kessel may not be a big talker off the ice, but that’s not to say he is an introvert. He clearly was the most lively of an energized Leafs bunch at Friday’s practice, chirping with his teammates and Wilson looking very much at home in his own skin and at his old rink.

“He’s just a kid, whose living the life having fun,” Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger said.

“He’s a hockey rat, that’s what I see with Phil,” Wilson said.

As for Saturday being a routine stop in a long NHL season — as Kessel tried to sell Friday through an uncomfortable smile — don’t buy it for a minute.

“It’s not just another game for him,” Leafs forward Jason Blake said. “It’s a big game. And don’t be surprised if he has a big night.”


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