Phil Kessel is general manager Brian Burke's Boy Wonder, but that didn't protect him from getting called out in a man-sized maligning from coach Ron Wilson.
With one goal the past 10 games and no assists in almost a month, Wilson used Kessel as Exhibit A in a wide-ranging rant about his Maple Leafs' lack of drive, delivered for full effect in front of the whole team, five assistant coaches and within earshot of the media Thursday at the MasterCard Centre.
“I could single out a lot of guys, but he's our best player and a lot of times that needs to be the message,” a caustic Wilson said afterwards. “Ooh, so he gets singled out in professional sports. We (criticize in public) because I'm ticked off. You do need a kick in the rump sometimes and then we’ll see how people respond.”
As he lectured the players, Wilson’s outrage grew at how meekly they’d followed up a big win against Florida with a 6-2 stinker in Philadelphia, where they were out-played and shown up by the likes of hot dogging Flyer enforcer Daniel Carcillo.
After the 10-minute tirade, in which he linked a lack of desire for puck possession to the team’s 3-8 slump and 14th place in the conference, he ordered a series of rough one-on-one takeaway drills to underline his point.
Kessel refused to speak after practice, but the rest of the players knew their shy 22-year-old top gun would have to face the music when the team has just 20 goals the past 10 games.
“I think it’s fair,” defenceman Ian White said. “When someone’s struggling a bit, sometimes you need a little kick in the butt to get going. It doesn’t matter about your age, we’re all on the same team here. Whether you’re 19 or 37, you might need the same message to be sent. It doesn’t matter who’s watching or listening, we needed that message to be sent.”
Jason Blake tried to put himself in Kessel’s shoes.
“I think there’s a little too much (fan and media) pressure there,” Blake said “He’s trying his hardest out there and sometimes they don’t go in. It’s easy to say he has to get back to doing the simple things and making the easy plays, but when you’re a natural scorer like he is, he just can’t change his game.”
If Thursday’s lines were any indication, Wilson will reinforce his displeasure with Kessel Friday in Buffalo by sticking him on a line with the goal-less Rickard Wallin and rookie Viktor Stalberg.
The latter tried to take some of the sting away for Kessel.
“(Wilson) calls a lot of guys out,” Stalberg said. “If Phil doesn’t score, he’ll get on him. Right or wrong, the coach knows what he’s doing.”
The Leafs are in dire need of a mental makeover, approaching a back-to-back situation against Buffalo and Ryan Miller and then Pittsburgh at home Saturday. But these consecutive games have proven to be poison to Toronto’s playoff hopes.
In the past five seasons, 64 back to backs have seen the Leafs reap the maximum four points just eight times. That leaves 56 other occasions where they split or were swept.
“If we’re going to play like that, it’s going to be a rough (final) 30-odd games,” said Stalberg. “We have to play with a little bit more desperation. Not look for fights or go for the big hits, but everyone competing for the puck.”
Wilson also ripped the team for falling behind by two goals 22 times in 44 games, their lack of special teams’ success and their general compete level in Philly, after teasing everyone the night before with a come-from-behind win over the Panthers.
“Don’t get going when the score is 5-1 or 6-1,” Wilson chided. “Hey, you’ll lose puck battles, but do you get right get back on it, or slough it off on someone else? Battling for the puck isn’t physical play, it’s wanting the puck. They strip it from you, turn around and strip it right back.
"More of them have to be (accountable).”