TORONTO, Ontario - Moments after Canada narrowly edged Latvia 2-1 to book their ticket to face the United States in the semifinals of the Olympic men's hockey tournament, Jonathan Toews was asked about going head to head against his Chicago Blackhawks teammate Patrick Kane.
“He's alright,” laughed Toews, “but that Kessel guy is even better.”
Whether Toews was sharing his true belief or not is beside the point. The fact that the captain of two different Stanley Cup champions would even think to make that comparison shows that Kessel is being thought of among the game's elite, not just by pundits but, more importantly, by his peers.
And rightly so.
Finishing up with points in thirteen of his final 15 games before the Olympic break (11-16-27) to put himself fourth overall in NHL scoring with 65 points – second overall in goals with 31 behind only Alex Ovechkin – Kessel has continued to excel in Sochi, leading the men's tournament in scoring with eight points in four games while sitting tied with Michael Grabner for the lead in goals with five.
Let that sink in for a moment. In a tournament involving undisputedly the best players in the world, Phil Kessel has arguably been the top performer.
“We all believed that he's able to do it,” said Kessel's centre in Toronto, Tyler Bozak. “Who knows what other people think outside of our locker room but we believe in him to be one of the best players in the league and he's proving it yet again.”
Now 26 years old and in his eighth NHL season, Kessel is on pace for his best statistical season, poised to set new career highs in goals, assists and points. If he keeps up his pace set through the first 60 games, he could well break the 40-goal plateau and finish just shy of 90 points. To put that in perspective, not since Mats Sundin scored 41 goals in 2001-02 has a Maple Leaf reached 40 goals. The 90-point milestone hasn't been met in Toronto since Sundin did it in 1996-97.
Nazem Kadri feels it's time for Kessel to be recognized among the NHL's best.
“I think he should be, if he wasn't already,” he said after the Maple Leafs reconvened for practice on Wednesday. “I think we all knew that Phil was going to achieve more, especially on that big ice. Not too many players in the league can skate with him. Phil does a great job finding areas to get open; he can find his own teammates and score goals.”
The knock against Kessel has long been that he is too one-dimensional of a player but the Madison, Wisconsin native has been aggressively debunking that myth in recent times. An inspired effort during the Leafs seven game playoff series against the Boston Bruins in the spring of 2013 was an eye opener. He's shown a willingness to stand up for himself, as he has done on two separate occasions against Alex Burrows this season.
“I think Phil kind of likes that stuff secretly,” revealed Bozak after Kessel's latest altercation with Burrows on Feb. 8. “It kind of fired him up.”
Perhaps most impressive though has been Kessel's ability not only to score goals but to enhance the play of his teammates, a much more difficult task as a winger than as a centre. Only Patrick Kane (36), Taylor Hall (36) and Kyle Okposo (35) have more assists as wingers this season than Kessel's 34.
To any longer cast Kessel in the light of solely a one dimensional goal scorer is inaccurate. He's proven that he is one of the most purely skilled players the Leafs have had in the last thirty years and right now, among the best in the NHL.
“Phil has definitely taken strides here and has grown as a player,” explained Coach Randy Carlyle. “He's not a one dimensional player as people described him previously. He's a guy that still has some things that we'd like him to stop doing but he's become more of a two way player, he's stopped on pucks a lot more, he's been in the shooting lane a lot more. He's not just a rush player, he can do a lot of different things with the puck and he's provided this hockey club and now the USA team with a lot of different intangibles.”