Matt Frattin is just three months and one day younger than Phil Kessel.
"He's also played like five years," said the 23-year-old Frattin of Kessel's NHL experience. "That's why I asked him the other day and he said he'd already played five and was on his sixth, I was like 'You're a year older than me and you already played that many'. I couldn't believe it."
Despite the very minor gap in age, Frattin – like many Leafs early this season – is following the lead of the Leafs 24-year-old sniper. Not only is Kessel producing offence in droves – five goals and eight points in three games – but he's playing with a relatively newfound commitment and dedication in all three zones – the 200-foot player as Brian Burke likes to describe it. Winning battles along the boards, chipping pucks out in the defensive zone, back-checking with vigour, Kessel is dedicating himself to the finer elements of the game.
Teammates have noticed the evolution and are rallying around the rather unlikely leader.
"I think it has a huge effect," said linemate Tyler Bozak. "When guys see Phil going as hard as he can and playing the way he is, it definitely puts a spark in all the other guys. He's a leader on the ice and guys follow him. When he's playing well it makes everyone work extra hard."
"He's one of our leaders," added Frattin. "He's definitely a guy you take for an example in experience."
A big-time goal-scorer in his own right at the University of North Dakota – NCAA-leading 36 goals last season – Frattin is closely monitoring the three-time 30-goal scorer, taking notes from the bench, seeking advice with greater frequency.
"I talked to him yesterday and he said, 'Just get the puck to the net,'" explained Frattin. "He's like 'Get the puck to the net and good things happen' just like his second goal there [on Saturday night]."
Not loud or boisterous by any stretch, it's Kessel's on-ice exploits that have demonstrated leadership early this season.
While his first goal against the Flames was far more highlight-worthy – he scored with defenseman Chris Butler draped on his back – his second goal was proof of his words to Frattin. Darting wide right into the offensive zone, Kessel dropped the puck to a trailing Cody Franson, who quickly returned it back to the Wisconsin winger. Cutting hard to the goal, Kessel – from the red line – tucked a backhand off the skate of Lee Stempniak in behind Miikka Kiprusoff.
'Get the puck to the net' just as he had preached it.
"Those are the kind of goals that happen a lot in the NHL," said Frattin, still searching for his first NHL goal. "Look at the goals around the league, it's all rebounds in tight areas – there are not too many pretty ones.
"But Phil definitely gets the pretty ones and looks really good."
A notoriously hot starter – 25 goals in 43 career October games, according to HockeyReference.com – the true test of Kessel's growth as a leader will present itself when the pucks stop finding twine. Like many and all great goal-scorers, he is bound to peaks and valleys, but contributions from team leaders can't stop when one element isn't working to perfection.
Will the 200-foot game continue when the offense dries up, if ever so slightly? Only time will tell, but considering the dominant second half last season – 30 points in 33 games, minus-1 – it's evident that Kessel is growing into a more complete hockey player.
"I think we've seen it both the previous years too where he can turn it on and he can take his game to a new level," said Bozak. "Obviously there's going to be ups and downs for everyone throughout the year, [but] if he can stay consistent the way he's playing it's going to be a heck of a year for him."
Leadership and all.