Toronto Maple Leafs struggling sniper Phil Kessel was in full damage control mode Monday morning at practice as he addressed the media following some incendiary comments on Sunday that he claims were taken out of context.
"I love Toronto, I want to be here," Kessel told reporters. "I love this city. I love the fans. I love this team. The guys are great here. I don't want any trade or anything like that. I want to be here for a very long time."
The 23-year-old Kessel was benched for part of Saturday's 6-2 Maple Leafs loss to the Sabres and demoted to the third line. The Madison, Wisconsin native was apparently none too pleased with his coach's decision.
When asked by reporters on Sunday if he had spoken to Wilson about the incident, Kessel replied: "No, me and Ron don't really talk. That's all I have to say about that." Kessel then exacerbated the situation when it appeared that he was asking for a trade out of Toronto by saying: "I don't know. Maybe it's just not working out, I guess. Who knows? I didn't get anything going. Maybe it's time for a change or something. Who knows?"
Kessel claimed that particular quote was taken out of context, saying that he was discussing his line-combination and not his tenure in Toronto.
"ObviouslyI'm frustrated, right? But in no sense did I ever mean I wanted a trade. I think when someone asked the question – 'what do you think about your new line?' – that's what I meant. It was taken out of context, I guess."
While Kessel reiterated the fact that he rarely speaks with his head coach, he said that he does not feel as though it is not an issue."We don't talk, like, often. I don't think anyone talks to the coach that often, right? I mean, some guys might, but I don't. There's no problem."
Wilson told reporters that he had a lengthy discussion with Kessel on Monday to clear the air on any issue either side may have.
"We had a good talk today," Wilson told reporters. "What you're seeing in Phil, it's not an issue with me. It's an issue with not scoring, and he's frustrated. And it's good that he's frustrated, but what we talked about is, 'what do you do when you are?' And with Phil, it's been common that he goes throughout his career into these little ruts that he doesn't score for 10 games. There's other things that you can help a team do – so that's what we talked about today."
Wilson also said he felt that Kessel's comments had been completely blown out of proportion.
"I think you're reading things into a very frustrated young man," Wilson told reporters. "I don't have any issues with Phil, and he knows that."
Wilson said that he feels as though Kessel is putting far too much pressure on himself to produce.
"He has to just figure out a way to just relax," said Wilson. "That's what I told him: 'You're getting the ice time.' He plays more minutes than any one of our forwards. We're not singling him out or anything like that. He's not scoring. We're trying to shake things up a little bit, put him with different people."
Maple Leafs' general manager Brian Burke told TSN that he felt the issue was completely overblown by the hockey-mad media in Toronto.
"It's a speed bump, not a major issue," Burke told TSN. "It's Toronto, it's a fishbowl environment and Phil knew that when he signed here. I mean, until he scored last night, Vinny Lecavalier had 1 goal in his last 15 or 16 games or whatever, but his team is playing well, it's Vinny Lecavalier and Tampa is not Toronto. Things don't get the same attention, which is fine. That's just how it is but this situation is not a huge issue and we're moving forward."
Boyce said Kessel addressed the team prior to practice in order to clear the air.
"It all got talked over here this morning before we went on the ice," Boyce said. "He let us know that he didn't mean anything by it or that he wanted out of here by any means. He's just looking forward to tonight."
Kessel has been a lightning rod for criticism in Toronto since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in 2009 for a pair of first round draft choices and a second round draft pick. He has not found the back of the net in 11 games and has been held pointless in eight of the past 10 Maple Leafs games. Compounding matters recently was the fact that Kessel was the last player selected at the NHL's first ever all-star fantasy draft. While Kessel seemed to take it in stride, he became the butt-end of many jokes in the process. In addition, Washington Capitals star sniper Alex Ovechkin was caught by television cameras taking a cell phone picture of Kessel and laughing as the Leafs' lone all-star representative sat by himself awaiting his name to be called.
A former first round pick of the Bruins, fifth overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Kessel has 19 goals and 15 assists in 52 games this season.