Kessel feels bad for ex-coach

Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel warms up prior to a game against the Calgary Flames on February 14,...

Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel warms up prior to a game against the Calgary Flames on February 14, 2012. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)

Steve Buffery, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:01 PM ET

Phil Kessel generally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve when speaking to the media.

But the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer seemed genuinely saddened when asked on Sunday about his former coach, Ron Wilson.

Offensively, Kessel has had back-to-back career seasons under Wilson and the two seemed to hit it off on a personal level. So, when Wilson was given the onion by general manager Brian Burke on Friday, Kessel admittedly was upset and more than willing to share his feelings about the situation.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Ron,” Kessel said, following new coach Randy Carlyle’s first practice with the Leafs on Sunday afternoon. “I liked Ron a lot. I thought he did a good job for us. I think the fans here were tough on him. It’s a tough situation. This is a tough town if you go on a skid like that.

“It’s not his fault we were losing games,” Kessel added. “We just weren’t doing the little things to win games. When you’re down 2-0 to start games and you lose by one goal, and stuff like that, it’s not his fault. It’s not his fault we went on that skid. It’s the players. We play the game out there and we didn’t get it done.

“Obviously, for me, I liked him a lot,” the speedy winger continued. “I thought he was a good coach and a great guy to me. He supported me. It’s really tough. Obviously, I liked him. It wasn’t his fault, (despite) what people think.”

So here’s the big question: Yes, Kessel has had career years in Toronto under Wilson, but his play in the defensive zone often leaves something to be desired. As the team’s offensive sparkplug, along with Joffrey Lupul, Wilson seemed to forgive Kessel, and that first line, except for the fact it sometimes appeared confused and indifferent in its own end.

So, under the defensive guru Carlyle, will Kessel’s game be overhauled for the sake of a two-zone style of play? Will the club’s leading scorer, with 32 goals and 36 assists in 65 games, be asked to be more responsible defensively, perhaps at the expense of his offensive output?

“I don’t know,” said Kessel, when asked that very question. “It’s (only) been one day (since Carlyle took over) so we’ll see how it goes for the last 17 games and we’ll figure it out.”

To be fair, Kessel’s defensive play, at least on paper, has improved this season. (He finished the 2010-11 season at minus-20 and is even so far this year). But it will be interesting to see how he plays under Carlyle, a strict taskmaster who won’t let players lollygag in their own end.

Carlyle insisted on Sunday, however, that the last thing he wants to do is stifle Kessel’s, or anybody’s, offensive creativity. He said it’s possible to be a great offensive player under his system while being responsible defensively. He wants his team to be a “conservative, yet attacking hockey club.”

“With Phil Kessel, I just refer to Teemu Selanne, I refer to Bobby Ryan, I refer to Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry — the MVP of the league last year. Those players all have a special sense and a special skill-set that separates them from other players,” said Carlyle. “(And) the one thing I’ve asked all of those players previously (in Anaheim), and what I ask of Phil Kessel, is when it’s his turn to be first on the forecheck, it’s his turn. When it’s his turn to be first on the backcheck, he does that. And usually those things work themselves out. I appreciate the skill set that he comes with. He’s a dynamic young player. Are there areas which we feel he can improve on? For sure, there is. As there is everybody on our hockey club.

“So, to say that I’m going to change Phil Kessel’s game dramatically, I would say not,” Carlyle added. “I’m going to take him for his skill set and his abilities and try to utilize them. I said it when we first came on board, we have to, as a coaching staff, create an environment for Phil Kessel to have success in.”

It promises to be an interesting ride.


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