Phil Kessel has been putting on a clinic in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His success stems from the lethal chemistry he’s formed with linemates Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. His team-high 18 points has lead the surging Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 2009. If they emerge victorious against the San Jose Sharks in the final round, he would be the candidate most likely to win the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the most valuable postseason player. However, if we were to rewind the hands of time and go back to the 2014-15 season, we’d see that things weren’t quite as pretty for Kessel.
Phil Kessel and the Toronto Media
Frustrated with the losing environment and the Toronto media constantly picking him and his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates apart, Kessel developed a very sour relationship with the Toronto media, calling their behavior “embarrassing.” While he was by far the best player Toronto had, Kessel’s short temper with the media gave them incentive to portray him as the problem with the team’s struggles.
In an article titled “The Leafs need to get rid of Kessel,” Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun claimed that Kessel’s “lack of conditioning, his disdain for coaching, his unwillingness to accept ownership of any difficulty, his part in Salutegate, [and] his tone-deaf ways trump any singular scoring skill that makes him unique.” Simmons even went as far as publishing a bogus story that Kessel ate hot dogs every day; an atrocious display of professionalism, the very thing Simmons accused Kessel of lacking.
The Toronto media also loved calling Kessel an incompetent defender.
Is he a great defender? No. Neither is Patrick Kane. Defense isn’t something offensively gifted players are in desperate need of when their skill set allows them to toy with the opposition. However, the misleading plus/minus stat suggested that Kessel’s defensive play made him a liability, finishing all six of his seasons with the Leafs as a minus player. Advocates of the stat believe that minuses negate points, despite a recent five-year study showing that plus/minus gives marks to undeserving players at least one-third of the time (Edmonton Journal).
In most cases, a player’s plus/minus rating will depend on how good his team is, so when Kessel joined forces with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, a perennial playoff team, he inevitably became a plus player. Kane will never have to hear criticism of his defensive play so long as he remains a scoring machine and the Chicago Blackhawks remain a force to be reckoned with. The combination of the two have kept him on the plus side of plus/minus since 2009.
Granting the media’s wish, the Leafs pulled off a move routinely made by teams in a rebuilding phase. They sent Kessel packing in the off-season along with Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon and a second round draft pick in 2016 to the Penguins in exchange for Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington and first and third round draft picks in 2016.
Now that Kessel has been able to find success in the postseason with his new team, the Toronto media has changed its tune. Rather than eating their all you can eat buffet of crow, they’ve made it as if they never wanted to see him leave and that they knew he’d be a non-cancerous player on the superior Penguins. In an attempt to defend himself and his colleagues, Simmons recently tweeted out: “For all the attackers out there and there’s lots of them. TO media didn’t trade Phil Kessel. Shanahan, Babcock, Hunter, Dubas made that call.”
Very funny, seeing as how running Kessel out of town was priority number one for them just over a year ago. If it was clear he needed to be given a solid supporting cast, why wasn’t management the focal point of their criticism? Management were the ones that signed David Clarkson to the horrendous seven-year, $36.75 million contract, Kessel didn’t make that call. Management were the ones that built a defense corps about as sturdy as a house of cards, Kessel didn’t make that call. Rather than pinning the blame on the deserving party, Toronto media decided to badmouth their top player and pushed heavily for his departure
It has been a real treat seeing him succeed in his new home.
Cup Final action begins tonight when the Penguins host the Sharks at 7:00 p.m. (CT).