After being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a deal which signified monumental change in Toronto, Phil Kessel has made the deal, at first perceived to be a massive win for the Maple Leafs, appear more and more like a terrific move by Jim Rutherford.
Despite enduring the goal scoring slumps which have typified his career to date during the 2015-16 NHL season, Kessel still managed to score 26 goals and 59 points in 2015-16. Sure, those totals were nowhere near his career highs, but Kessel still played a very important role in Pittsburgh, and, whether you like it or not, was a major reason why the Penguins not only reached the Playoffs, but went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Given Kessel’s recent success, as well as the anniversary of the trade which sent Toronto’s top offensive player to Pittsburgh, let’s take a moment to look back at Kessel’s time with the Leafs, in particular the moments most memorable of his tenure in blue and white.
In chronological order:
In September of 2011, Phil Kessel suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery. A week later, the Leafs traded for the young sniper and signed him to a five-year contract, surrendering two first round picks in the process which would eventually become Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
Having missed 12 games while recovering, Kessel returned in mid-November and was immediately welcomed back to the NHL by Mattias Ohlund, who caught the speedster crossing the blue-line with his head down just ten minutes into his Maple Leaf career.
Although Kessel didn’t find the score sheet in his first game with Toronto, he did manage to record a game-high ten shots on goal, a sign of what was to come ahead in his time with the Maple Leafs. The hit remains one of the most memorable moments of Kessel’s career, if not for the wrong reasons.
In what was an awkward moment for fans, Kessel and undoubtedly the NHL itself, Kessel found himself as the final selection in the 2011 NHL All-Star Draft which took place in Carolina.
As the last player selected, Kessel was rewarded with a brand new car, a gesture which made the entire process that much more ridiculous. Fortunately, there was a bright side to the odd nature of the event, as Kessel received $20 Thousand to donate to a charity of his choice.
The spotlight however certainly didn’t help to aid Kessel’s public image. As a person uncomfortable with the public spotlight and media attention, Kessel was forced into an awkward interview with James Duthie, while the looks on the faces of his fellow NHL stars said it all.
David vs Goliath
By no means is Kessel one of the bigger players in the NHL. Checking in at 6′, 200 pounds, Kessel is of both average height and weight, yet weighs in nowhere close to John Scott, who at 6’8″, 260 pounds is by far one of the largest, most intimidating players in professional hockey.
On September 22nd, 2013, these two unlikely combatants nearly came to blows in a pre-season game, as the imposing Scott attempted to jump Kessel off of a neutral zone face, setting of a line-brawl in the process.
After running from the much stronger Scott, Kessel replied with two vicious slashes, acts which drew him a three-game suspension, or what translated into the remainder of the 2013 NHL pre-season.
The incident was one of the most ridiculous NHL moments in recent history, but one which did produce a number of entertaining spin-offs, including a lightsaber wielding Kessel.
Throughout his entire career as a Leaf, Kessel was denounced for his perceived inability to perform well against his former team, the Boston Bruins. Leading up the Maple Leafs’ 2013 first round playoff matchup with the Bruins, this was abundantly true. In his 25 games against his former team come the end of April, 2013, Kessel had scored just three goals and carried a minus-22.
However, Kessel excelled when it mattered most, notching four goals and six points over the Leafs’ seven-game series, although they were eventually eliminated in historic fashion.
Likely most notable of Kessel’s four playoff goals in the 2013 campaign was the one he scored at home to force a Game 7 in Boston.
With the Bruins coming on strong as the Leafs held on to a third period, 1-0 lead, Kessel recorded a timely security marker with just 11 minutes remaining in the game, and one which would stand as the eventual game winning goal.
Toronto only reached the Playoffs once ranging from 2005-16, so at least Kessel was monumental in ensuring the run of the 2012-13 season was a memorable one.
Following the firing of Head Coach Randy Carlyle on January 6th, 2015, the Maple Leafs entered into a massive tailspin, eventually finishing 26th overall come the end of the season.
Due to their losing ways, Toronto’s star players began to feel the wrath of both the local media, as well as the Maple Leafs fan base as a whole for their perceived lack of ability. While Kessel received his fair share of negativity, Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf took the full force of the blame, with the media and fans bashing Phaneuf for his apparent poor play.
Widely regarded as one of the best Team Captain’s in the NHL, Phaneuf had a friend in Kessel, who took a moment while addressing the media to indicate both his belief and confidence in the Captain’s abilities, both on and off of the ice.
Kessel had always shied away from the media, so the fact that he felt the need to address the Leafs’ struggles as well as the frustration directed towards his teammate said wonders about Kessel as an individual.
Sure, he had shown over the years that he didn’t necessarily adore the public spotlight as greatly as others, but his willingness to put himself aside to defend a teammate proved there were great qualities to Kessel’s personality which had long been hidden behind the scenes.
As it would turn out, this was the last memorable moment that Kessel produced as a member of the Maple Leafs. Of course, there were a large number of notable moments which came in between, heck, Kessel did score 181 goals and 394 points in Toronto, however these were likely the five most notable of his time in blue and white.
What are your most memorable Phil Kessel moments from his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Comment below!
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.