In his book “Future Greats and Heartbreaks”, author Gare Joyce is in the draft room when the Columbus Blue Jackets scouts are discussing Phil Kessel’s blights as a prospect.
1) Awkward personality and demeanor.
2) Trouble getting along with teammates and coaches.
3) Lack of effort in certain aspects of the game.
4) Poor physical conditioning.
These issues are brought up in a pre-draft interview, and Phil, not a polished speaker or a guy who relates easily to others, kind of flubs his answers to some tough-ish questions.
Some people try to defend the Toronto winger, saying he's being attacked for no real reason, but to minimize these problems or try to argue them away is futile it seems. Phil never really has succeeded in putting them behind him.
Some players do grow and overcome. Patrick Roy used to eat fast-food to excess, earning himself the nickname ‘Casseau’ from his teammates, a French-Canadian term for the container french fries come in. In time, with Jean Perron offering a lot of coaching on this, he changed his eating habits.
Mathieu Schneider was knocked as having a shot that couldn’t break a pane of glass when he first came up to the Canadiens. He reflected on this at the end of his career, and explained that with a heck of a lot of work, notably with Jacques Laperrière and Claude Ruel, he developed a very effective slapshot.
So players do evolve, but it seems Phil is who he is, a sublime scorer with great big flaws. Comparisons abound to Patrick Kane, another player who isn’t the whole package, but surrounded by strong coaches and good leaders, finds a role and is influenced in the right direction. Phil doesn’t have that luxury in Toronto unfortunately.
Specifically to his physical conditioning, it’s often brought up that he scores well on certain tests, or that he’s still the fastest skater out there. Trouble is, that may be strictly natural ability. He might be one of those freaks who doesn’t look like much but get him on the field or on the ice and he wows you. And when he approaches his thirties, that natural ability will fade, or fall off a cliff, and he won’t be able to dominate based on that. Guy Lafleur experienced something similar the second half of his career.
Phil has never been a workout warrior, and admitted as much this fall at training camp, with his famous “I don’t think I skated ten times this summer” quote. Paul Maurice spoke of his players conditioning generally, and how they passed the ‘shirts off’ test. Phil fails that test, abysmally.
So any team that acquires Phil Kessel has to know that he is who we think he is, to borrow from coach Dennis Green. They better have that structure in place, the leadership corps that he can come in and complement, serve as an on-ice lieutenant at most, and provide a scoring threat who they desperately need.
Ideally, it will be in a city where the media glare will fall off, a Phoenix or Florida or Anaheim, because I don’t relish him being hounded for much longer. It’s not the guy’s fault he’s kind of quirky, and that he likes playing hockey but thinks the systems and crashing and banging and all that dryland training stuff is crap. He’s endured a lot in his life, notably a cancer scare.
A lot of his woes are self-inflicted, the biggest one being his decision to re-sign in Toronto, instead of pulling a Tomas Vanek and being very open about wanting to use his options as a free agent. But it’s getting a little stale to see him be pilloried on a daily basis. It’s probably time for a divorce with the Leafs.