TORONTO – The duo was first established in the middle of February 2011, three games into the Toronto tenure of Joffrey Lupul. Phil Kessel scored twice that night against his old team in Boston, both goals assisted by Lupul in a 4-3 win.
Kessel is now eight games into the 2013 season and has yet to score. And while the 25-year-old has demonstrated a far more determined all-around game and most certainly had his fair share of opportunities to score, little to nothing has come easy. Enter the ongoing absence of Lupul, who is sidelined for at least the next month with a fractured right forearm. Subtract the All-Star left winger from the equation and it's only fitting Kessel's production would be hurt.
Perhaps predictably but still rather striking are the numbers for Kessel with and without Lupul over the past two-plus seasons. In 94 games, primarily with Lupul flanking the left side, Kessel has totaled a hefty 46 goals and 100 points. Remove a running mate of the 29-year-old's caliber and the numbers follow suit; 23 goals and 50 points in 78 games.
Inked to a five-year extension last month, Lupul's value to the organization and especially to Kessel, is made clear here.
||With Lupul (GP)
||Without Lupul (GP)
||13 G 15 A (26)
||19 G 17 A (56)
||33 G 37 A (66)
||4 G 8 A (16)
||0 G 2 A (2)
||0 G 2 A (6)
||46 G 54 A 100 Pts (94)
||23 G 27 A 50 Pts (78)
Magnified in Lupul's absence is the lingering void of a defined, prototypical number one centre. Tyler Bozak fills the de facto gig as capably as can be expected, but he's neither big enough nor skilled enough to open up room and easy opportunities for Kessel.
Lupul helps to ease that void.
A big body at six-one and 200-plus pounds, his ability to drive the net with speed and force creates room and space for Kessel to operate. The duo feed off one another well – Kessel had a career-high 45 assists last season – creating and conspiring offensively, notably in transition and on the powerplay. “It just comes with comfort,” James van Riemsdyk, filling the Lupul void presently, opined. “Some styles and players have it more naturally than others do together … I think a lot of times when you have that chemistry you can just go out and not really think too much about the system. You know the guy, you can make a play maybe, not a hope play, but you can make a play without knowing that the other guy's going to be there, without having to really take a look. I think that's when you have the best chemistry with guys when you can do that.”
Kessel has had dozens of opportunities to break what's become his longest drought to begin a season. Most of those chances, however, have not been easy. Often, the opportunities are of his own making with opposing defenders keyed on his efforts in transition. Shots from the perimeter have been common, attempts to crash the net have been rare. It's no wonder that Kessel is attempting 4.5 shots per game, by far the highest mark of his career.
Like Lupul, van Riemsdyk has brought a similar big body to the line with Bozak and has shown hints of chemistry with Kessel, but he's still growing as a player and is not of Lupul's All-Star caliber at the moment. “They still get their chances offensively, they create lots,” said head coach Randy Carlyle. “I thought JVR has gone in there and been a nice complement for them.”
He acknowledged though that “Lupul's there for a reason.”
Kessel will eventually break the drought and find the back of the net, but doing so without Lupul makes the process that much more challenging.