TORONTO - The groundwork for what Phil Kessel hopes will be a breakout NHL season was laid in the summer where he worked out tirelessly alongside a pair of young college hockey stars.
One is a junior defenceman with the University of New Hampshire and the other a freshman forward with the University of Minnesota, a pair of players who literally hit close to home.
“We pushed each other and we’re all better for it,” Blake Kessel said Tuesday in a phone interview from Durham, N.H., where he is preparing for the Wildcats’ NCAA season.
“I think Phil is kind of looking at this season as one where he’d like to turn another page. He is definitely in shape and as long as he stays healthy, I don’t see any problem with him scoring 40.
“I know that’s one of his goals. He worked really hard for that this summer.”
Blake Kessel is the younger brother of Phil and a strapping 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenceman selected by the New York Islanders in the sixth round of the entry draft. The other workout partner? That would be little sister Amanda, a prodigy about to start her college career with the Gophers and considered one of the brightest young women prospects in the U.S.
All three Kessels have different career agendas at this point, but if Phil indeed has a big goal scoring season with the Leafs, he’ll dish off an assist to his siblings.
They ran, they lifted, they skated and generally made sure each left their Wisconsin home prepared to make the best of the coming season.
“I hate to admit it, but our little sister is probably the most talented,” Blake Kessel said. “She’s definitely the most natural athlete in the family. She kept us honest and kept pushing us.”
About to enter his second season with the Leafs and having turned 23 earlier this week, Kessel has quietly set the table for what the team is hoping will be the next step in his ascent to becoming one of the NHL’s elite goal scorers.
The soft-spoken Leafs winger has no interest in publicly setting a target for his production and really, what good could come from it? But there are enough signs suggesting that 40 or more is well within his reach, even on a team who hasn’t had a player hit that mark since Mats Sundin netted 41 in 2000-2001.
With all the fuss around rookie Nazem Kadri and the fanfare associated with newcomer Kris Versteeg during the pre-season, Kessel somehow cruised well under the radar at Leafs camp.
Part of that is his personality — if given the option not to speak to the media, Kessel would gladly exercise it. He’s not a quote machine anyway, preferring to let his on-ice activity do the talking.
But the results of his off-season conditioning were immediately visible from the opening of camp. His skating — always a strong point — was even more effective because no longer was he getting gassed part way through a shift. That endurance has also translated into a greater willingness to go to the net, a place where any big-time scorer has to be to power-lift his stats.
Put a capital asterisk on the following given the limited value of pre-season production, but Kessel was tied for the league lead in goals (six), power-play goals (four) and points (10) from the six of nine pre-season games he suited up for the Leafs.
In 70 games last year, Kessel scored 30 times, a big number given the many factors working against him: No training camp as he recovered from shoulder surgery, working on a league-worst power play and the fact he was slowed by another injury the last three weeks of the season.
His career high was 36 goals set in 2008-09 with the Bruins, another season which he was limited to 70 games.
“I know I have to score some goals for us to win games this year and I’m looking forward to it,” Kessel said earlier in camp.
He’ll start this season on a line with his buddy Bozak up the middle and Versteeg on the other wing. That threesome has already shown a proficiency on the power play, albeit success that still has to be proven in a game other than a friendly.
“I don’t see why not,” Versteeg said on Tuesday when asked if Kessel has what it takes to be among the NHL’s elite scorers. “He always seems to be in the right place. He has the speed to get into the openings and breakaway areas and two-on-one areas.
“He’s a smart goal scorer too. He’s just got to do his thing and he can be one of the top five goal scorers in the league. There’s no reason at all (that he can’t score 40). It’s all up to Phil. It’s all within his grasp.”
Don’t underestimate Versteeg’s role in whatever pending success may or may not come Kessel’s way. While they’re still learning each other’s tendencies, Kessel is already finding himself in better scoring situations.
“I think he can find openings and with the way our line has been going, it might take a little pressure off of him,” said Versteeg, who played on a line with Kessel once before when both were at the Boston Bruins rookie camp in 2006. “Instead of guys keying on him, they can key on all three of us.”
Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek has seen both sides of Kessel — as a teammate and as a divisional foe — and knows the danger he can bring. But what impresses Komisarek most is the dedication Kessel showed in the off-season, including returning to Toronto a month before training camp to skate informally with his teammates.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Phil yet,” Komisarek said. “He’s already one of the top wingers in the league and he’s a threat every time he gets on the ice.
“His experience definitely helps and the confidence is there. Is that a formula for more goals? Probably.”
Phil's 5 ways to 40
Not having to spend the summer recovering from off-season shoulder surgery allowed Kessel to get into tip-top shape which should help his effectiveness as the season goes on. In particular, he seems more energized at the end of shifts than last year and has the reserve to go to the net more regularly.
2. Power surge
Being the sniper on a team with the league’s worst power play is a major stumbling block to putting up big numbers. Kessel had eight power-play goals last season, but if he is to get 40 overall, he’ll need to come close to doubling that. Steve Stamkos led the lead with 24 PP scores last year followed by Dany Heatley (18) and three others with 14.
3. Kris Versteeg
As the former Chicago Blackhawk gets a chance at first-line minutes, he’ll get to show his own offensive flair. So far what we’ve seen is a patience with the puck that allows Kessel to seek out open ice and become less predictable to defend. In the past, he spent too much time on the mid-board waiting for a chance to fire his lethal wrist shot.
4. Secondary scoring
If the Leafs second line wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur can provide some offence, there will be less heat on the top unit. Same goes with Versteeg — if he becomes a legit 20-goal scorer (or more) Kessel becomes even more effective.
5. He shoots, he scores
Kessel led the NHL in wrist shots last season and his quick release makes it one of the most lethal in the league. His average of over 4 shots per game were among the most in the league so he gets his chances. That figures to continue with Versteeg on one wing and the evolution of Tyler Bozak as his centre. In training camp, anyway, Kessel spent more time in front of the opposition net than he did last season, leading to at least three of his six pre-season goals.