TORONTO — The joke was that Phil Kessel was working on his disappearing act.
Many other jokes were made as a crush of reporters and cameramen spent about a half hour waiting for the Toronto Maple Leafs forward to talk on the first day of the playoffs. It never happened. Kessel, who was seen walking in the players-only part of the dressing room after a power-play meeting, told members of the team’s media-relations staff that he had declined to speak for one reason or another.
“That’s the first I heard of it and we’ll deal with that internally,” GM Dave Nonis said when asked about Kessel’s refusal. “Our players will be available on a going-forward basis.”
And so the jokes started. And so did the concern.
Someone said if Kessel was afraid to speak to reporters in Toronto, just think how he will react when he goes into the corner against Zdeno Chara in a first-round series against the Boston Bruins. But while Kessel’s on-ice struggles against his former team is a legitimate worry going into this series, it has nothing to do with how he has struggled to meet media demands off the ice.
Kessel is — and always has been — one of those players who has to be forced in front of the camera. In his first news conference after being traded to Toronto in 2009, he would not stop fidgeting with his fingers and punctuated every sentence with “ums” and “ahs.” Another time, after answering a few questions, a reporter said, ‘See, I told you it would be quick and painless.’
Kessel responded, ‘Well, it was quick.’
So Kessel’s disappearing act on Monday was not really an act. It was another example of a player who has always preferred to let his play do the talking. Normally, that is not a problem. He led the Leafs with 20 goals and 52 points, tying him for seventh in league scoring. And in 15 career playoff games (all with the Bruins) he has nine goals and 15 points.
Against his former team, however, his play has required further explanation.
In 22 games since the 2009 trade that brought him to Toronto, Kessel has three goals and nine points and is a minus-22 against Boston. Kessel has also put up terrible numbers against the Philadelphia Flyers (three goals and 11 points in 25 games), but with Boston it goes beyond the statistics.
The Kessel trade not only netted the Bruins two first-round draft picks — which were used to select Tyler Seguin and Doug Hamilton — but helped the team win a Stanley Cup two years later. Since then, the Boston faithful has welcomed Kessel back with chants of ‘Thank you, Kessel,’ which we can only assume has a negative affect.
“I think it fuels a fire a little bit for Phil,” Nazem Kadri said of the Boston crowd. “I know he wants to have a big series. I know, personally, I love going into buildings and getting booed and getting heckled. That always used to bring the best out of me.
“I think Phil’s going to react the same way. I know he really wants to have a statement series. And it’s not only just on him. We have to do a lot of things to help him out.”
On Monday, that meant answering questions that Kessel should have been around to answer himself. But when the series opens on Wednesday, it will also mean picking up some of the scoring slack.
“Phil’s going to get the most attention here, obviously, and that will probably be with any team as well,” winger Joffrey Lupul said. “He’s been on fire lately and playing at a really high level. But at the end of the day, he’s only one piece of the team.
“If they’re really concentrating on taking Phil out of the game, then other guys have to step up. It’s not fair to rely on one guy or put the pressure on him. But I know this is a good opportunity for him.”
Indeed, it is a chance for Kessel to quiet his critics. Maybe if that happens, he will finally feel inclined to say a few words.
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