Kessel is hockey's best story

If Phil Kesselís emergence has been stunning, so, too, has the play of Joffrey Lupul, the contract...

If Phil Kesselís emergence has been stunning, so, too, has the play of Joffrey Lupul, the contract throw-in the Leafs took a gamble on. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

TORONTO - Of all that has gone on in the first quarter of this sometimes brilliant, sometimes worrisome Maple Leafs season, the emergence of Phil Kessel as a possible National Hockey League star is the story that trumps all that isnít Crosby.

His rise to this level ó as leading goal scorer, leading point getter in the NHL ó for as long as it lasts has been completely unexpected. The tendency is to believe this cannot continue, especially considering Kesselís history as a streak scorer, an inconsistent performer, and a sometimes less than motivated athlete.

But heís never had a streak that was this good, this long, this focused, this dominant. Heís hasnít shown this kind of star potential, this kind of on-ice authority, since he was compared with Sidney Crosby as a teenager.

And the two have never been close since.

But Brian Burke has seen this kind of ascendency before. He drafted Daniel and Henrik Sedin in Vancouver and had to live through five years of waiting, worrying, wondering what the Sedins would become. He had to live through all the questioning of their talents and concern they would never live up to their lofty billing. It happened in their fifth NHL season, after four seasons in Vancouver and one lockout year. They made the jump from ordinary to great.

The kind of jump Phil Kessel appears to be experiencing through the first quarter of this Leaf season.

Daniel and Henrik were 25 when they turned their careers around. Since the NHL lockout year, Daniel, for example, has scored 524 points in 492 games. Before that, it was 151 points in his first 318 games.

This is season six for Kessel as a professional. He is only 24 years old, having lived through cancer, shoulder surgery and the usual learning period kids must go through, and has never scored more than 64 points or 36 goals in a season before. Those are decent numbers, just not franchise changing, star-like numbers. But right now, one-quarter into this season, he leads all of hockey in goals and points: He has scored 16 times in 21 games, set up 13 others, is on pace ó dare we make that ridiculous climb ó for 62 goals, 51 assists, 113 points.

Thatís not going to happen, but if he can make a 25% gain on his 64-point season of a year ago, and leap from 64 to 80, that would be monumental and historical on its own.

The Leafs havenít had an 80-point scorer since Mats Sundin hit that mark in 2002.

It may be too much to ask of Kessel in his third Leaf season but at least now it doesnít appear inconceivable.

If Kesselís emergence has been stunning, so, too, has the play of Joffrey Lupul, the contract throw-in the Leafs took a gamble on. They had to take some money back when making the Francois Beauchemin-Jake Gardiner trade with Anaheim and they settled on Lupul as opposed to the other onerous contracts offered their way.

Heís had a bad back, a blood disorder, an off-ice reputation and had been shuffled around enough to be deemed a player no longer of any consequence. That Kessel had the talent to be great has never been in question. But that Lupul had meaningful hockey left in him, hardly anyone in the game believed that was possible.

Now you look at the NHL statistics and have to rub your eyes in disbelief. There is Lupul, third in the NHL in points, fourth in assists, in a place he has never been before.

In his last full season, he scored 50 points with the Philadelphia Flyers. Before that he had 53 in Anaheim. That looked to be as good as it got.

Lupul has 25 points right now in 21 games in his first full Toronto season ó and dare we consider this crazy pace? ó but it would land him at 97 points for a full season.

And what is apparent watching the Leafs ó is that Kessel makes Lupul better and Lupul makes Kessel better.

Still, it hasnít translated to a first-quarter without difficulty. The Leafsí goaltending has been problematic without James Reimer, the team gives up too many goals against, has trouble killing penalties, and yet has demonstrated an usual resistance, garnering points from games in which points didnít seem possible.

The question the season began with remains: Will the Leafs make the playoffs? Only five points separated first place and 12th in the Eastern Conference as of Monday afternoon. The league is that close. The Leafs are playing at a 93-point pace. That likely wonít be enough to qualify for the post-season. But there are three-quarters of a season to go ó and with Kessel and Lupul starring ó there is, at least, something to be look forward to, something brewing.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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