When Phil Kessel goes home to Wisconsin for the Christmas holidays, he won’t even be the most productive scorer around the dinner table.
The slumping Maple Leafs forward will surrender that honour to his little sister Amanda, who is lighting it up as a freshman on the women’s team at the University of Minnesota.
Perhaps some of that will rub off and maybe the break will restore some of his scoring touch that has gone missing. With just five goals in the past 25 games played since Oct. 28, Kessel is certainly the most visible flashpoint for the Leafs’ struggles.
After a gruelling one-hour practice Wednesday at the Mastercard Centre before the team departed for its annual outdoor shinny session, Kessel was in an introspective and upbeat mood and quite willing to discuss his struggles.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed, I want to score and my team needs me to score,” Kessel said. “That’s what they brought me here to do. I’ve got to figure it out, but at the same time I’ve got to keep positive.”
To his credit, Kessel isn’t making excuses and accepts the responsibility that goes with his role and the contract that makes him the Leafs highest-paid forward.
“What Phil does, and the way he does it, is the most visible part of our game,” said Leafs vice-president of hockey operations, Dave Poulin. “And that’s why the magnifying glass is the way it is. Because he does it with such flair, you simply want more.”
If there were a simple slump-busting solution, every coach in every scoring sport would be using it. But as Kessel tries to crack his latest drought, here’s a look at five areas contributing to it:
1. Weight of the world
He may only be 23 and sometimes appears indifferent and aloof, but Kessel is no dummy. He understands the expectations on him and pressure that follows
“I started well, but I’ve been struggling,” Kessel said. “I just can’t get it to go in lately. I’m going to take this break and come back better and ready to go.”
Poulin tells a great story from his days in Philadelphia when he captained the Flyers and worked out with players from other sports, including Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt.
“(Schmidt) used to say: ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to hit another home run,’” Poulin recalled. “I would say: ‘Mike, you’ve hit 500 of ’em.’ But he would go to the park concerned he would never hit another home run. That fear exists in every sport.”
As a one-dimensional player — a forward with great speed and a devestating shot — Kessel is always going to leave people wanting more.
“There is a difference in the way people score goals and the way Phil scores, it makes you want more,” Poulin said. “Watch the way he shoots the puck. When you see a talent like that, you want more out of it and so does he.
“I don’t think any of the true goal scorers handle (a slump) well. Nor should they.”
2. TARGET ON HIS BACK
As sophisticated as NHL coaching is these days, opponents don’t need to look far to figure out how to slow down the Leafs. In football, you double team the superstar receiver, in hockey you pay more attention to the sniper, especially when he doesn’t have much backup.
“Yeah, I think they are defending me tougher and I’m just not getting as many quality looks,” Kessel said. “I feel like I’m not getting into the spots I want to get into to shoot the puck.
“There are obviously spots on the ice that are easier to score goals from and right now I’m not getting to those areas. I’m a little farther out than I want to be. I don’t have a perfect spot, but you just know when you are out there when you have a good chance to beat the goalie.”
His coach, Ron Wilson, has implored Kessel to set up shop closer to the net and collect some garbage goals. Easier said than done, obviously, as that has never been Kessel’s game.
“(Kessel) has one of the more dangerous shots in the league, but when you make him predictable, he’s way easier to stop,” said a defenceman from a recent Leafs opponent. “He’s got a great release, but if you can get him out there so your goalie can see it clear, the threat isn’t as bad.”
3. STREAKY BY NATURE
Using Monday’s game as an example again, Kessel had plenty of chances to score including five shots on net, four blocked and three fired wide. Of those, Poulin said five were what he calls “Grade A” chances, yet Kessel had none to shot for it.
In each of the past three seasons, Kessel has had prolonged slumps (see chart on facing page) similar to what he’s mired in currently. The upside is that once he eases out of it, he tends to do so with a rush.
“I don’t know what to tell you right now, but one of these days they will come in bunches,” Kessel said. “I go through these stretches once in a while an you’ll get a bounce or two here or there and you get out of it. Hopefully they’ll come soon.”
Poulin has followed Kessel closely since he was a 16-year-old and he was trying to recruit him to come play at Notre Dame, where Poulin was the coach.
“I’ve had some good chats with him, we all have,” Poulin said. “He’s going to score goals. What you see and what we see and the fans see, Phil sees as well. And nobody wants it more than he does.”
4. BAD BOUNCES
It was just a few shifts after the Leafs found themselves down 2-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers on Monday and Kessel snagged a turnover and was handed a near breakaway. Minutes later, he had another great chance from in close and he couldn’t bury either.
“One hit the goalie’s toe, the other I went into deke and the puck just kind of flipped up on me,” Kessel said. “Sometimes it’s the bounces, but you’ve got to make your own luck. Right now I’m just not doing it.”
“He’s got to put that in,” Poulin said. “He knows it. We know it. When he does, it can change a game.”
5. NO SUPPORT
If you could fit such things under the Christmas tree, Leafs general manager Brian Burke would be delivered a big power forward that could create some space for Kessel.
If there is a glaring need up front right now, this is it as the Leafs have yet to find a consistently adequate linemate for the team’s designated sniper. Wilson has mixed and matched all season looking for such a fit and nothing has clicked beyond a handful of games.
While Kessel’s game certainly has flaws, there’s no denying that his shot is as lethal as any in the game. But it’s not like a golfer who will get a wonky driver from time to time or the yips with a putter.
“I don’t think it’s my shot, that’s not the problem,” Kessel said. “Me and (regular linemate Tyler Bozak), we’ve got to get in there and figure it out.”