|Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel is introduced during the NHL All-Star skills competition. (REUTERS/Shaun Best)
TORONTO - As Phil Kessel headed off into the snow on Wednesday afternoon, no doubt mumbling to himself about another bundle of missed scoring chances, three of his Maple Leafs teammates remained behind at the MasterCard Centre, able to bask a bit in the glow that comes with playing well and producing.
The line of Mikhail Grabovski centring Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin has been a bright spot for the Leafs on offence where Kessel too often has been a blemish, surprising even coach Ron Wilson, who acknowledged it sometimes is difficult to ascertain what will result when he puts players together in training camp.
“You don’t know,” Wilson said after the Leafs practised at the MasterCard Centre in preparation for a home game on Thursday night versus the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I personally think they have probably exceeded anything I expected from them. They have become our top line and they have to carry the burden on a lot of nights offensively, and they have been able to do it consistently.”
Grabovski has a career-high 21 goals, MacArthur has a personal-best — and team-leading — 41 points, and Kulemin has 17 goals, the most he has scored in any of his three National Hockey League seasons.
One important reason for the trio’s ability to click is that none of them are the same. Grabovski is wise in close, MacArthur often sets the table and Kulemin doesn’t mind working the corners.
And every chance they get, the three are talking to each other. Communication is a key, and it is no coincidence the line makes something happen on nearly every shift.
“I liked the chemistry right out of camp with these guys,” said MacArthur, who signed a one-year, $1.1-million US deal with the Leafs last summer. “I know where they are a lot. It’s just the right combination sometimes. You need a shooter, you need a guy who is going to work and you need someone who can find the shooters. I feel like we all have that.”
MacArthur might be the biggest eye-opener of the three. He did not have a contract until last Aug. 27, but the knock on him had been consistency. Those whispers about the 25-year-old dried up long ago, and now people are talking about MacArthur’s subtle smarts.
“I did not know much about him until we got him this year,” Wilson said. “He is certainly on my radar. He has played well in just about every game. When he is on the ice, there is usually going to be a pretty good scoring opportunity. And he has worked hard in his own end. He has been really good at both ends. Good for him that he has played as well as he has.”
As for Kessel, he was not up to discussing what has evolved as his longest goal-less streak of the 2010-11 season. The 23-year-old ignored a media request for an interview and apparently was the first Leaf to leave the rink after practice.
Kessel has not scored in eight games, though he had several top-notch chances versus Florida on Tuesday, none better than the breakaway in overtime when Scott Clemmensen stopped Kessel’s backhand deke.
It goes without saying (but here it is anyway) that Kessel has to start finding the back of the net in what has become the Leafs’ most crucial part of the season.
When Kessel scores a goal, and he has 19 of them, the Leafs are 11-4-1.
“He had half a dozen scoring chances (against Florida) and you just keep putting him out there, and eventually they are going to go in,” Wilson said.
The team and every member of Leafs Nation can only hope.