Humble Kessel Key to Toronto’s Resurgence

It would be acceptable to suggest that Phil Kessel’s career would have been a success after he survived a bout with testicular cancer and returned to play in the NHL. But the soft-spoken Kessel forced Boston to trade him, inevitably to Toronto, has a burning desire to win the Stanley Cup and after the first month of this season the 24-year-old just may lead the Leafs to their first championship since 1967. “No hard feelings,” he said when asked if he was jealous. “They had a great year last year, I’m happy for them and hopefully one day we win one here (in Toronto).” Then he added with a grin, “Preferably this year.”

He currently leads the league in goals (10) and points (21), while helping Torontoto a hot start this season (9-4-1) good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference behind Pittsburgh. Brian Burke, the Leafs’ GM, paid a hefty ransom to acquire Kessel from Boston — sending two first round picks and a second round pick — and although the Bruins were able to obtain the uber-talented Tyler Seguin in the 2010 NHL draft (with the Maple Leafs second overall pick) and win a Stanley Cup last season, Toronto should be better in the long run if Kessel continues to evolve into a consistent sniper.

Drafted by Boston fifth overall in 2006, Kessel was two months into his NHL career when he was diagnosed with cancer. “By far, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” he admitted. “It made me stronger.” Remarkably, he missed only 11 regular season games and was back in the Bruins’ lineup by January of 2007. “Obviously it changes you,” he said. “You live life to its fullest and you never take anything for granted.” His final season (2008-09) in Beantown is where his talent really began to show as he netted 36 goals in 70 games, beginning a stretch of three consecutive 30-goal seasons.

In 2010 Kessel enjoyed one of the highlights of his career to date — representing the United States at the Winter Olympics, where the squad earned a silver medal after losing to Canada in overtime. “It was a great experience, I had a great time,” Kessel recalled with a smile. “It’s too bad we didn’t win that last game, but it was great to be a part of.”

Last season he was selected to play in his first All-Star game and this season his hot play in October earned him NHL player-of-the-month. “I’m playing with a good team here,” Kessel said, spurning the spotlight. “I have good linemates; we’ve been clicking really well this year so far. But it’s a long year; hopefully we can keep it up.”

It appears the sky is the limit for Kessel who has already appeared in 388 NHL games, scoring 266 points (138g-128a), and his continued development will most likely determine if Toronto ends the league’s longest championship drought.

Dan Rice can be reached at drdiablo321@yahoo.com.

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Should He Stay or Should He Go…

It’s been almost two weeks since the New Jersey Devils 2009-10 season came to a crashing halt at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers. Three days after their elimination, coach Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement forcing the team to search for it’s sixth head coach in six seasons since the lockout ended. Three consecutive first round exits, haven’t made it past the second round since winning the 2003 Stanley Cup.

After having time to digest all of this I’ve come up with some suggestions on how to improve the team and hopefully help them (at least) make it out of the opening round of the playoffs. All salaries I used are courtesy of nhlnumbers.com.

Coach: Hire Mike Keenan. The ex-Ranger coach, (more recently ex-Calgary) would seem like an odd choice at first glance, but he knows how to win and he could work well together with another crafty mind like GM Lou Lamoriello. His first task will be convincing Brodeur to play less games, oh and his career total of 672 wins is good for 4th all-time.

Trade: Jamie Langenbrunner, Mark Fraser (and/or) Andy Greene to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle. Perhaps Lamoriello can convince Leafs GM Brian Burke that he can use a Langenbrunner to lead his young team in 2010-11 as he led Burke’s Team USA to a silver medal. Kaberle has one year left on his current deal at $4.25 mil, so to make it fair salary-wise Lamoriello may have to surrender both Greene and Fraser; Langenbrunner is due $2.8 mil and will also be going into the last year of his contract. Perhaps Kaberle will waive his no-trade clause to skate with fellow Czech Patrik Elias.

Trade: Before the draft call your old trading partner Don Waddell from Atlanta and offer him RFA David Clarkson ($875,000) for soon-to-be UFA Colby Armstrong ($2.4 mil). Maybe he still wasn’t 100% from the leg injury, but Clarkson was invisible versus the Flyers; Armstrong will be a player that plays hard every shift and in front of the opposing goalie he will be a pain in the @$$, something Clarkson has failed to do in each of the last two postseasons. See if Waddell has any interest or room for Jay Pandolfo also, who could help stabilize a young squad.

Free Agency: Let Paul Martin, Mike Mottau, Rob Niedermayer, Rod Pelley and Martin Skoula walk away. Changes have to be made and most of these players were very serviceable, the ultimate results just weren’t there.

Do whatever you have to do to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk. Quick name another first overall pick that has played for the Devils. Stumped, well as far as I know there is only one other– Bobby Carpenter — and he wasn’t nearly as dynamic as Kovalchuk is. Hopefully Ilya sticks around, but who am I kidding, there’s no way he’ll stay in New Jersey right?

Sign Free Agents : Tomas Plekanec, Marek Svatos and either Andy Sutton or Anton Volchenkov. Plekanec is the center that the Devils have been lacking since Scott Gomez took the money and ran to Manhattan, leaving Travis Zajac as the team’s only legitimate scoring center. Svatos is a talented, scrappy, underachieving winger from Colorado who could fit in on a solid third/fourth line. Either Sutton or Volchenkov won’t come cheap, but they are both worth the money that will be spent on them. They both block shots well, get in shooting lanes and aren’t afraid to get into scrums to protect the front of their crease — a huge lacking element in NJ the last three playoff failures. Both players also have the same downside too — they are both injury prone, so teams may end up being hesitant to throw major cash around.

There’s a saying ‘scared money makes no money’ so I say the Devils need to revamp the current edition to make it look something like this:

Line A: Ilya Kovalchuk-Tomas Plekanec-Patrik Elias
Line B: Zach Parise-Travis Zajac-Dainius Zubrus
Line C: Brian Rolston-Colby Armstrong-Marek Svatos
Line D: Pierre-Luc Leblond-Tim Sestito/Dean McAmmond-Vladimir Zharkov

D-pair 1: Tomas Kaberle-Anton Volchenkov/Andy Sutton
D-pair 2: Matthew Corrente-Bryce Salvador
D-pair 3: Colin White-Anssi Salmela/Tyler Eckford

Goalies: Martin Brodeur, Yann Danis

I know I’ve made some crazy suggestions here, and I have no doubt that I’ll probably be 0.00% right, but hopefully some changes are made so I’m not sitting home watching less-superior teams battle for a chance to get steamrolled next season. Let me know how insane this all sounded, Thanx.

Dan