TORONTO - On Tuesday night, Phil Kessel scored, picked up an assist and likely drove new Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle crazy.
Carlyle is known to be a strict taskmaster, a coach who demands a solid effort from his players in all three zones of the ice. He expects his scorers to check and to skate hard for quick shifts and then get the hell off the ice.
That being said (and not always being done in Kessel’s case), it’s going to be interesting to see how the working relationship between Carlyle and Kessel develops.
Tuesday’s 5-4 loss against the Boston Bruins was a typical Kessel game. The flashy winger scored his team-leading 33rd of the season and picked up an assist (both points coming on the power play), and was awful defensively, finishing the game a minus two, despite his two points. In a span of 41 seconds in the second period, the Bruins scored two goals on the Leafs with the Kessel-Tyler Bozak-Joffrey Lupul line on the ice.
Now, you don’t expect your leading scorer to win the Frank Selke Trophy, but you don’t expect him to float in the defensive end like Kessel too often does. Leading up to Boston’s second goal, by Tyler Seguin at 2:02 of the second, hulking Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara stick-handled around Kessel just over the Boston blue line like they were playing road hockey. Carlyle wasn’t impressed, to say the least.
“His work ethic was strong,” said Carlyle. “But on the other side they can’t continually give up quality scoring chances. It was like a momentum swing for the one shift that they got scored on twice. And those are the things that we again have to correct as a group. But I thought (Kessel) was a dynamic individual in the other areas of the game. Every time he had the puck on the power play ... he controlled the puck down the side and made things happen.”
Still, if your top offensive player continually finishes games in minus territory, you’re in trouble. Something is going to have to give. Sooner or later you just know that Carlyle is going to read Kessel the riot act — the old ‘either play defence or’ ... well, there’s not much he can do other than try to CONVINCE Kessel to play defence, something that recently-fired coach Ron Wilson had trouble doing on a consistent basis. The Leafs desperately need Kessel’s offence, but they can’t afford having that first line lollygag in their own end game after game.
Of course that all may be a moot point, as Lupul left Tuesday’s game with an apparent shoulder injury and may be out for a while.
Carlyle made a point at practice on Sunday that he has been able to get his star players in Anaheim to score without giving up their defensive responsibilities, players like Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne. But Kessel, who finished last season with a career high 64 points, and also a career worst minus-20, is a different story, a certifiable, one-dimensional player. Carlyle has his work cut out for him.
There is something going on with Kessel lately. His ice time has dropped consistently in the last five games. Against Washington on Feb. 25, he played 23:16, followed by games against Florida (21:17), Chicago (19:19), and Montreal (18:39). He played 22:02 against the Bruins, but much of that time came on the power play and in the final couple of minutes when the Leafs pulled goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. During those five games, Kessel picked up five points and was a minus-six.
The big challenge is for Carlyle to figure out how to get his top two scoring lines firing offensively while playing three-zone hockey. Kessel especially.
“That’s all part of the process here with this hockey club,” said the coach. “We’ve got enough goals to win the hockey game. It’s the defensive aspect of it that needs to be improved upon.
“Everybody knew that this team could score goals,” Carlyle added. “Tonight was just another indication of the amount of work that’s necessary on the defensive side of it, and the compete side of it, and one-on-one battles side of it. And, really, if we demonstrated the will that was out there in the third period, for 60 minutes, that’s what was required. That was my message.”