Remembering Phil Kessel’s Time With the Maple Leafs

Phil Kessel is an enigma. He’s nothing if not a complex and seemingly contradictory person with an equally complex NHL career. 

Kessel doesn’t look much like a hockey player; however, his quick skating (true) and excellent shot (very true) have made him a successful scorer in the NHL. At the same time, his playing style was unpredictable and inconsistent. He’s been a mixture of both hockey brilliance and frustration.

Phil Kessel Maple Leafs
Phil Kessel with the Maple Leafs

For those who don’t believe Kessel was a fast skater when he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he beat Dallas Stars’ Tyler Seguin in the fastest skater contest as part of the NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 24, 2015.

In addition, Kessel is a private personality. He tends to keep to himself off the ice and is known for being quiet and reserved (sometimes almost non-responsive) in interviews. He sometimes makes it difficult for fans and the media to read his motivations and emotions.

Related: The Marian Hossa for Dany Heatley Trade, Revisited

Kessel’s reputation has also been a bit controversial. He’s had a few run-ins with the media and coaches over the years, and these have sometimes led to some negative perceptions of him in the hockey world. 

But overall, his unique personality and playing style, combined with some controversial moments during his career, all contribute to his perplexing reputation. And there’s no denying he’s a great player.

Kessel’s Time With the Maple Leafs

Kessel played for the Maple Leafs for six seasons from 2009 to 2015. He was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Maple Leafs in 2009 for three draft picks. The picks turned out to be Tyler Seguin (first round in the 2010 draft), Jared Knight (second round in the 2010 draft), and Dougie Hamilton (Round 1 in the 2011 draft). In 2015, the Maple Leafs traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, Kasperi Kapanen, and two draft picks.

Phil Kessel
The Maple Leafs acquired Phil Kessel, who’d had a stupendous sophomore season, in September 2009, but paid a hefty price. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kessel’s arrival in Toronto was highly anticipated, as he was expected to boost the team’s offensive output. He did not disappoint, leading the team in goals and points in each of his first three seasons. He was also named to the NHL All-Star Game in 2011 and 2012, further solidifying his position as one of the league’s top scorers.

Kessel’s Problems in Toronto

However, despite Kessel’s individual success, the Maple Leafs struggled to make the playoffs during his tenure with the team. In his six seasons with the team, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs just once (in 2013). That season, Kessel’s former team – the Bruins — eliminated the Maple Leafs in the first round.

Related: Phil Kessel’s Most Memorable Maple Leaf Moments

The Toronto media took occasion to blow Kessel’s appearance out of proportion. Given his “round-looking” face, they criticized him for being “fat” or “lazy.” They were wrong. Kessel was (and still is) a hard worker who has been in decent shape throughout his career. He even spent off-seasons working out with Gary Roberts, a former NHL player.

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Kessel’s defensive abilities also came into question, but he was never as bad as many suggest.

Kessel and Hot Doggate

During his time with the Maple Leafs, Kessel was part of some interesting moments. The first was “Hot Doggate.” In a 2015 Toronto Sun article, Steve Simmons wrote the following about Phil Kessel.

“The hot dog vendor who parks daily at Front and John Sts. just lost his most reliable customer. Almost every afternoon at 2:30 p.m., often wearing a toque, Phil Kessel would wander from his neighborhood condominium to consume his daily snack.” (from “Leafs were sick and tired of Phil Kessel,” Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun, 01/07/2015).

That story was debunked later that month. However, when Kessel did win the Cup with the Penguins, he brought it back to Toronto and actually had it filled with hot dogs, which he ate from the Stanley Cup.

Kessel Is Still “Phil the Thrill”

The second was that Kessel’s scoring ability earned him the nickname “Phil the Thrill” among Maple Leafs fans. The nickname stuck with him, and when he passed the NHL record of playing in 1000 consecutive NHL games, his Las Vegas Golden Knights had a special jacket made for him to commemorate the occasion. On the back was embroidered “Phil the Thrill.”

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While fans used the nickname as a way to poke a bit of fun at Kessel for being a one-dimensional scorer, Kessel poked back in a good-natured way. And obviously, his new team had just as much fun. 

Such moments help to humanize Kessel and reveal his self-depricating sense of humor. Despite the pressure and scrutiny that he faced as a star player in Toronto, he prospered.

Kessel’s Time in Toronto

Kessel’s time with the Maple Leafs was marked by individual success but team struggles. He remains one of the most prolific scorers in Maple Leafs’ history; however, during his tenure, the team made the playoffs just once.

The Toronto media had fun by criticizing Kessel’s appearance, but he had fun back at them. He was painted as lazy and out of shape. In reality, he’s a hard worker who’s been in good shape throughout his career. 

Kessel Was a Stanley Cup Winner

In 2015, Kessel was traded to the Penguins and helped them win two Stanley Cups. His long NHL career has established him as one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NHL.

Related: Revisiting Maple Leafs’ Trade of Phil Kessel to the Penguins

Right now, he has eight games remaining with the Golden Knights in the 2022-23 season. Should he score 11 points in those eight games, he’d end up with 1000 points over his NHL career.

If he reaches that mark, do you think he’ll celebrate with a tube steak?

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