Phil Kessel's recent mediocre play is not the reason for the Leafs latest lack of success, but it is a contributor. December was a very important month for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was an opportunity to reach a number of key milestones and position the team for a genuine run for the post season. With teams like the Flyers, Canadiens, Islanders and Thrashers plummeting in the standings, last month was a golden opportunity to move up and gain some ground on the rest of the Eastern Conference bottom dwellers. Unfortunately the Leafs and Kessel failed to take advantage.
The Leafs came out of the blocks like gangbusters in December. They began the month going 6 - 3 with 5 of those wins coming against Eastern Conference rivals. Phil Kessel was on a 3 game goal streak with 5 goals and 5 assists in those 9 games. With Kessel scoring at more than a point a game they were making a charge and moving back towards respectability. They even looked like they may finish the month at 500%.
Nobody is expecting Phil Kessel to carry this team single-handedly. He also gets a pass for having to play with such a talent starved group of forwards. Combine this last point with fact that opponents have figured out that if you shut-down Kessel, you shut-down the Toronto Maple Leafs. Having said this, stars in the NHL are supposed to be able to overcome such things and find ways to succeed. Not only has he failed at this he's become all but invisible. If Toronto is going to salvage this season at all, this just cannot happen.
It's still much too early to judge whether Brain Burke gave up too much for Kessel. Carolina is trying their best (or worst) to land the number one pick in next years draft so leafs fans may not have to endure the agony of watching Boston use our selection to take Taylor Hall. With every loss however, it does seem certain Burke did trade a lottery pick. Too make matters worse, none of the players Burke aquired last season with the exception of junior prospect Nazeem Kadri are making much impact at any level.
All this boils down to one important fact. The team we have this year is probably going to look very much like the team we have next year. Granted Burke will have some money to play with in the off-season and many of our current players may not be back, but with teams holding on to their young core players more than ever, good, young, free agents may be hard to land.
Kessel is not big, he's not truculent, and he's not a fighter. He's a fast, flashy forward, who can beat defenseman and goalies from almost anywhere. He's been this for most of the season, hopefully he will wake up and bee that player again. If not, this already disastrous season will only bet worse.