Leafs' Kessel off to historic start
Gordie Drillon? The name elicits a blank stare from Phil Kessel. He doesn’t recognize the last Toronto Maple Leafs player to lead the National Hockey League in scoring.
He also doesn’t realize that it occurred during the 1937-38 season, nearly a decade before the league began awarding the Art Ross Trophy.
“I had no idea,” said Kessel, the Leafs’ right-winger currently atop the NHL scoring race with 12-12-24 totals from 17 games. If he maintains his current pace, it won’t be long before parallels are being drawn between Kessel and Drillon. Parallels that are evident.
Like Kessel, Drillon shot right, played right wing, and was a pure goal-scorer whose overall game was often held in question. Questions that Kessel appears to be answering this season.
“You hear things,” said Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles, until this season a Kessel opponent as a member of the Colorado Avalanche. “I think that as goal-scorers go, sometimes they get knocks on them. Everything you hear about him, his strength is his goal scoring, being an offensive player.
“People said his defence wasn’t that strong, or maybe he doesn’t compete coming back, but I think he’s been one of our best players in all three zones of the ice.”
This change in approach, Liles believes, is the key to Kessel’s march to the top of the scoring ladder.
“Coming back, back pressuring, him doing that has led to more offensive opportunities, because he’s getting rewarded,” Liles said. “When he’s coming back, when all our forwards are coming back, our D are able to stand up and create turnovers, and we’re a pretty good transition team, and that allows him to get the puck on his stick even quicker.”
With linemate Joffrey Lupul, who shows 9-10-19 numbers, they’ve formed an effective unit.
“They’re both tremendous players, and I really think they’ve found some chemistry out there,” Leafs centre Tim Connolly said. “They’re playing great, scoring goals for us, and they’ve been a real force offensively.”
Lupul, who often dishes the puck to Kessel, also passes him much of the credit for their success.
“Phil’s playing at an extremely high level, and playing with him, I’m getting a lot of opportunities,” Lupul said.
October’s NHL player of the month, the first Leaf to be so honoured since Felix Potvin in 1993, Kessel leads the league with 19 even-strength points. Kessel’s seven goals in his first five games were the most over that span to start a season by a Leaf since Dave (Sweeney) Schriner scored eight during Toronto’s first five games of the 1944-45 campaign. Kessel joined Schriner and Rick Vaive (1983-84) as the only Leafs to hit double-digits in goals through the first 10 games of the season. And he was the first Leaf to reach the 20-point plateau in 12 games since Doug Gilmour in 1992-93.
Not that of this matters to him, either.
“I don’t think about it,” Kessel said. “I’m just going out there to get W’s, and any way we get the win, that’s the most important thing.” A native of Madison, Wisconsin., Kessel would also be the first American-born player to top the NHL scoring charts should be hang on to his advantage until season’s end.
“We’ll see,” Kessel said. “It’s a long year. I’m just trying to get points.”
Kessel is making points both on the scoreboard, and with his teammates in the dressing room, and it may very well be the latter that proves to be his most significant accomplishment.
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