TORONTO - Ron Wilson has got Phil Kessel riled up off the ice with a change of job description. Now to light a fire under him on Monday night.
The coach is going to put the frostbitten forward with new centre Darryl Boyce, as much to snap a 10-game goal-less streak as to clean up his Maple Leafs-worst minus 22. For Kessel, who prefers playing with good pal Tyler Bozak, the switch, the slump, the Leafs' faint playoff hopes and the lingering sting of getting picked last in the all-star game seem to be taking a toll.
After practice at the MasterCard Centre on Sunday, the usually quiet Kessel took the unusual step of sitting in full equipment waiting for reporters at his stall to talk about his woes and let them know he wasn't happy with the move.
"Maybe it's just not working out here (his old line), I guess," Kessel said. "I can't get anything going. We have to change something. I'm not sure if that (putting him with Boyce) is it. Who knows? I'm trying."
When asked if he and Wilson have discussed the skid off the ice, Kessel replied "me and Ron don't really talk ...that's all I have to say about that."
Wilson replied that Kessel is not one to share many thoughts on scoring at any time of the season.
"He doesn't want to talk about it or even work on it in practice, it's kind of a touch thing," Wilson said. "He comes and goes with cold streaks and hot streaks. Just be patient and change up the line. This is a different look, it makes (Kessel) think a little bit.
"At the end of the day, he's getting the chances (averaging more than four shots per game) and he has to figure a way to put he puck in the net. But a scoring chance that fails should not shut you down the next five or six minutes."
If Kessel wasn't clicking with Bozak and Joey Crabb, it might be even more of challenging with Boyce, who has six points in 17 games since his recall from the Marlies. On the other hand, Boyce is very defensively responsible.
"We're just trying to find some balance," Wilson said. "You look at what Boyce has done since he's been up. In 17 games he's been on for 13 goals and he's a plus (2) player. Phil hasn't scored in 10 (games) and in that period I think he's minus-7. I think Darryl can help the line defensively. And playing with (Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg) is going to help Bozie."
With the season down to 30 games and a huge chasm in the standings between Toronto and the playoff pack, Wilson had to act. But there was no way he was going to tinker with the No. 1 line of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
The change with Kessel will be in effect for at least the start of Monday's game against the Atlanta Thrashers. The coaching staff could tolerate Kessel's string of zeroes for a while, but his dip in plus-minus was not so easy to forgive. Kessel's confidence was sagging before the all-star break.
"I've had some chances, I've had some breakaways obviously in the last couple of games. It's not working," he said. "Hopefully, it changes. Like I said, it might not."
Versteeg predicted that Boyce would be a positive influence.
"Maybe he can try and fire up that line, everyone help out each other," Versteeg said. "If we're going to win, we need a guy like Phil to be coming and playing every night. He's an integral part of this team. You don't want to put the pressure on him, but you do have to work around guys (in that predicament), build them up and help them out."