It’s been almost eleven months since the Toronto Maple Leafs shipped Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The reaction by Leafs’ fans varied between those loyal to the Madison, Wisconsin native versus the naysayers who refused to accept his style of play: an elite scoring winger who lacked defensive effort. With a heap of playoff success, though, Kessel has become a followed figure by Leafs fans en route to the Stanley Cup final.
Back in September of 2009, Toronto acquired Kessel with the hopes that he could help turn their franchise around. He was portrayed as the “next big thing” since Mats Sundin, who was arguably one of the greatest players to have worn the Maple Leafs’ sweater. As time passed, Kessel became comfortable with the media, and vice versa. His absence of leadership was constantly addressed by fans, and while it didn’t seem to be an issue from his teammate’s perspectives, negative narratives snowballed into a black cloud, following Kessel around no matter the state of the team. By July 1st, 2015, Kessel was traded and the fanbase was divided with sorrow and joy.
Fast forward to this year’s Stanley Cup final where Pittsburgh is set to face off against the San Jose Sharks, Kessel leads the Penguins in playoff points and finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He’s not the guy anymore. He isn’t the superstar his team relies on to carry them to success, nor is he the fanbase’s scapegoat when there’s nothing to see but failure. As important he has been to the Penguins down the stretch, Kessel continues to somehow blend in on a superstar-loaded team. When Sidney Crosby replaces Tyler Bozak and Kris Letang substitutes for Dion Phaneuf, the pressure on Phil is alleviated.
What does this mean for the Leafs?
Regarding the team itself, nothing really. All that is left behind from Kessel is the $1.2 million of his retained salary from the July trade. With that being said, seeing him battle the Sharks for the cup gives Leafs fans a reason to root for Pittsburgh come game 1.
The situation Phil is in, however, is still relevant to the public. The constant arguments implying that the elite sniper was poison to Toronto is ignoring the offensive output put on display throughout each of the six seasons he was wearing blue and white. He’s not the reason for Toronto’s failure when he was the few bright spots they had. Now, Kessel is finally surrounded by talent and is headed to the Stanley Cup final while putting up Conn Smythe worthy numbers, allowing his supporters to respond to critics only to say “I told you so!”. His point-per-game playoff scoring rate reminds fans of the consistent production he managed while playing for several abysmal Leafs teams. Whether it’s from a hot playoff run or his longevity in Toronto, steady scoring is hard to come by in the NHL these days, and Leafs fans ought to reminisce Kessel’s presence after ranking 28th in the league in goals for this past season.
Scoring isn’t what some will remember him for, though. Instead of remembering Kessel for his three All-Star Game appearances, his notable snap shot, or how he stood up for his captain, his detractors will see his defensive flaws, his attitude towards the public, and his physique. Criticisms molded Phil into a disputable player at the water cooler in a Bay Street office. He was the butt of every joke solely for being the face of a then-mismanaged NHL team.
Kessel’s life became relatively undemanding when he landed in Pittsburgh last summer. Toronto fans watching him in this year’s playoffs are reminded of how his uncanny offensive abilities and constancy is valuable to a team during crunch time. After dealing with scrutiny for more than half a decade, the least Kessel deserves is the appreciation from his former fandom.