TORONTO – It must be the sticks.
Off to the best start of his NHL career, a furious 16-game pace which has seen him vault atop the league charts in both goals (12) and points (23), Phil Kessel is soaring to new and previously unexplored heights. But ask the 24-year-old, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, what's fueling this rapid rise to the elite ranks of hockey and he can point to only one thing.
"I changed my sticks," he told the Leaf Report, almost elatedly. "That's it! Changed my sticks, that's it."
Kessel isn't one to dissect the ins and outs of finding the back of the net. He's been bred to score, does so with almost natural ease and like a great magician, has no real interest in explaining it. "Well, I'm getting a couple good bounces right now," he said. "When you get good bounces it makes it easy."
Truth is they've never gone in quite this fast or economically for Kessel.
His shooting percentage is up to a blistering 23.1 per cent, well above his previous career-high of 15.5 per cent – a mark he set in his final season with Boston, a 36-goal campaign. The improved efficiency is directly tied to his shot quantity; Kessel is shooting the puck far less this season than he has in past years. He's on pace for 267 shots, 58 fewer than the 325 he fired a year ago (nearly one less per game).
"Sometimes you can get all the bounces and nothing's going in," he said. "Just depends on how it's going and right now they're going in."
How high Kessel will rise this season is uncertain at this early stage in the season.
Only ten players have hit the 50-goal mark since the lockout, with a mere three – Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley – doing so more than once. Ron Wilson coached the most unusual name in the bunch, then-Sharks sniper Jonathan Cheechoo, who led the league with 56 goals in 2005-06, only to disappear from sight a few years later. Wilson also presided over the likes of Teemu Selanne (three seasons with over 50), Paul Kariya (one season with 50), and Peter Bondra (two seasons with over 50).
He sees Kessel – a three-time 30-goal-scorer – ascending in a similar direction, but who hasn't arrived there just yet.
"I think he certainly has the potential to be a sniper like Peter Bondra was," said Wilson. "There's no reason to think that he shouldn't be scoring 40 goals every single year and maybe more. But our game's different now. That's why you only see maybe one 50-goal scorer a year.
"It's harder to score and if anybody can do it I think it's Phil. He's got the potential and he's fulfilling it right now."
Matthew Lombardi played with one of the few 50-goal men of the post-lockout era, Flames captain Jarome Iginla, a 52-goal-scorer in 2001-02. He notes one common link between the two. "They're obviously two pretty unbelievable scorers," he explained to the Leaf Report, "and I think that's what separates those guys is they don't just do it for a couple games; they just keep doing it night in, night out. It's obviously impressive to watch."
Consistency, Wilson maintains, is what will elevate Kessel to the next stratosphere of goal-scorer, from a regular 30-goal man to the heights of 40 and beyond. "Just be consistent and not have elongated slumps," said Wilson. "I think Phil's proven that [this season]; you go a couple games without a goal then you score a goal; it's not 'score five goals in five games and then go ten without a goal'. You've got to be consistent. You don't have to score every game, but you have to put them up, a goal a week, two goals a week and stuff like that."
It's not hard to spot the impact Joffrey Lupul has made running shotgun with Kessel. It took until January 1 last season – 37 games – for Kessel to reach his current mark of 11 assists, a bright sign of the symmetry he's established with the 28-year-old Lupul (eight goals, 18 points).
"He's had a great start," said Kessel. "He's played extremely well and Bozie (Tyler Bozak) and TC (Tim Connolly) have both played well in between us; we're just trying to keep going."
"Joffrey's turning into a power forward," noted Wilson. "Before you wouldn't necessarily have called him a power forward, but now he seems like he's a lot stronger – he's in great shape – he's going to the net hard, he's mucking it up in the corners and he's capable of carrying the puck down the ice and then making a play over to Phil and drawing the attention away from Phil."
What's been evident as a result is the variety of goals Kessel has scored this season.
"Phil's goals in the past have been generally getting the puck somewhere just inside our blue line, going to coast to coast and scoring a goal," said Wilson. "Now Phil's goals are around the net, off to the left side, sometimes the right and it's just not rush goals."
Summarizing the performance of his teammate so far this fall, Lombardi's eyes widen in admiration.
"He's got so much talent, like one of the best shooters I've seen," concluded the veteran forward. "It's pretty cool to see him go. He kind of makes it look easy out there which is pretty scary."