The NHL season is still very young, but Phil Kessel’s stat line of just two assists and zero goals through the first five games of the season is concerning to some of his fantasy hockey owners. Questions are beginning to be asked; “What is wrong with Kessel?” “Should I trade him and try to get someone else?” In order to answer those questions, we need to look at what Kessel has done in his career.
Kessel scored 37 goals and 82 points last season. This was his fourth straight season above the 30 goal plateau. However, this was the first season he married those goals with a higher number of assists (45), and so the increased point production allowed Kessel to finish in the top 6 of NHL scorers. This production came after being placed on a line with Joffrey Lupul as the chemistry between the two wingers was undeniable. Now with Lupul out for 6-8 weeks with a fractured forearm, how will this effect Kessel?
As far as goal production is concerned, Phil Kessel has been remarkably consistent (on a full season basis) throughout his NHL career, and there is little to no reason to believe that his struggles early in the season will continue. The fact is that Kessel is currently in a slump, but this is something that has happened often in his career. He is a notoriously streaky scorer who can put up 7 or 8 goals in a 10-game stretch, and then follow that up with 1 or 2 goals in his next ten. This streaky nature is not that different from a number of NHL goal scorers, who all seem to go through their hot and cold stretches (see Patrick Marleau for a player who is red hot right now).
For fantasy owners, a streak where Kessel goes 5 games without a goal is not that unusual. In fact, in 2011 he went 11 games without scoring a goal, yet still put up 32 goals that season. His hot and cold streaks will eventually cancel each other out and he will show good production on the season. Obviously his start is a lot different than last year where he stormed out of the gate with 5 goals in his first four games. But just as a 100 goal pace was an unsustainable production level over a full season, so now is his early season stuggles. It quite simply will not continue, and he will start putting the puck in the net, the way he knows how.
In watching Kessel this season, it is apparent that he is playing some strong hockey and has been getting shots and generating chances, but just can’t seem to bury them. His two way game is also improved. If his historical trends continue expect for the goal scoring slump to end soon. It really seems to be a situation where he just needs to score one goal, and things will take off from there. I would bet that as long as he stays healthy, he will put up 18-20 goals over the course of this shortened season.
In his time in Toronto, Kessel has shown that his linemates have little effect on his ability to score goals. He’s at his best skating the puck into the offensive zone and backing off a defenceman with his speed before firing his patent-pending laser wrist shot at the net. This skill set is far less dependent on linemates to generate goals, than other NHL scorers who need to be set up for a one-timer, or who are power forwards who score a lot of goals by crashing the net and banging in rebounds. As such, I don’t think the loss of Lupul will really effect his goal totals.
However, his assist numbers may take a dip from last season. The loss of Lupul certainly hurts the Leafs number 1 line featuring Kessel and Bozak. Yesterday, Clarke MacArthur attempted to fill the shoes of Lupul on that line, and it just didn’t seem to click the same way as Kessel and Lupul have in the past. I would expect the MacArthur experiment to last at least a few more games, but other players such as Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk, Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, and Leo Komarov could also be candidates to be tried on the number one line if MacArthur doesn’t produce. I don’t see any of these players producing the way Lupul did, so Kessel may not be able to repeat his point-per-game production without him over the next 6 to 8 weeks.
Based on all this information, what advice do we leave for the fantasy player? For those who own Kessel, don’t panic! The goals will come. For those who don’t, you may want to look to see what owner in your league owns him, as now could be a good time to buy low with this player in a trade. However, both should expect that his point totals will suffer a little with a lower assist total. Don’t look for point-per-game production, but something slightly below that, and I predict he will finish with 35-40 points if he stays healthy for the 48-game season.