In the 216 games Ron Wilson coached Phil Kessel, the electric right wing provided his boss with 94 goals and 93 assists. None of the other Maple Leafs came close to matching Kessel’s 187 points and 0.87 points-per-game pace.
Yet on Tuesday, during an interview on TSN 1050, the former Toronto coach pulled the curtain back on the peaks-and-valleys nature of Kessel’s game.
“I think you can win with Phil Kessel. He shows obvious signs of brilliance throughout the year,” Wilson said. “But Phil’s problem, and I think it’s pretty much the way Phil has been his whole career, is he’s two weeks on and two weeks off. You hope you can get him playing his best hockey as long as possible. You can’t rely on Phil. It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes. He gets emotional and lets that affect his game and his relationships with other players. That’s just the nature of the beast. That’s what you have to coach.”
As usual, things are not going well in Toronto. The Leafs sacked coach Randy Carlyle on Tuesday. They are fighting to remain among the East’s top eight. Forty games into the season, they were the NHL’s third-worst puck-possession team after Buffalo and Calgary. In their first post-Carlyle game on Wednesday, the Capitals took it to them, 6-2.
Kessel is one of the few Leafs fulfilling his job description. He’s always done it. Assuming the 27-year-old stays healthy, he’ll keep doing it well into his 30s.
There are things in the NHL that are as regular as the sun coming up every morning. The Oilers will be bad. The Blackhawks will be good. And Kessel will produce.
Since his second NHL season, Kessel has always scored 30 goals per year (he would have buried 34 in 2012-13). He’s on pace to hit the threshold again this season.
Since the Bruins traded Kessel to Toronto for what became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight, only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Corey Perry have scored more goals. Kessel is a game-changing talent, one who requires opposing coaches to alter their defensive formations to account for his presence. There is nobody in the league who skates with as much pace or snaps off a whippy wrister like Kessel.
The trouble with the Leafs is that the talent level plummets after Kessel. Tyler Bozak, his good friend and center, is a better fit as a second-line pivot. Only five defensemen in the NHL (P.K. Subban, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Kris Letang, and Brian Campbell) have higher cap hits than Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf. But Phaneuf has too many blemishes in his game for a defenseman earning his dough, with questionable hockey sense being his biggest liability.
The Leafs have one star. Postseason regulars such as Los Angeles (Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick), Chicago (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith) and Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang) have three. The Leafs don’t have enough second-tier players to complement Kessel’s star power. It’s hard to win when most of the roster is either bottom-six or third-pair quality.
Jonathan Bernier is a good goalie. Nazem Kadri is developing into a clever, shifty, top-two center. In Toronto’s first game after Carlyle’s firing, interim coach Peter Horachek moved Kadri into Bozak’s spot as Kessel’s center. Morgan Rielly will be a dependable two-way defenseman.
But the Leafs were treading water for two reasons: a thin roster and little structure. Kessel doesn’t even qualify as a top-10 concern. Every organization would love a dynamic right wing who is good for 30-plus goals every year.
That the Leafs were poorly coached is not up for debate. Carlyle should have demanded players such as Phaneuf to defend properly, not take risks, and play their position. He had two full seasons and parts of two others to install a sound defensive system and make sure his players executed. They didn’t.
The Leafs fired Carlyle one day after a 5-1 loss to Winnipeg. The Leafs were without Kadri, Joffrey Lupul, and Peter Holland. But the Jets were missing Jacob Trouba, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, and Mark Stuart. The Jets played at full roar, attempting 70 shots on James Reimer. The Leafs only had 36 attempts on Michael Hutchinson. Every Leaf was on the ice for more shots against than taken.
Winnipeg scored its first goal by picking apart Toronto’s crumbling defense. Dustin Byfuglien drove the puck into the left corner. Carter Ashton went with Byfuglien. So did Roman Polak. When it looked like Polak had possession of the puck, Rielly retreated behind the net in anticipation of a D-to-D pass. But by dropping below the goal line, Rielly left the net-front area open.
Polak wilted under forechecking heat from Adam Lowry. Polak threw a tape-to-tape pass out front to T.J. Galiardi. Reimer had no chance of stopping Galiardi’s point-blank shot.
But look at the players involved in the goal. Polak is a stationary, unimaginative, defensive defenseman the Leafs acquired for Carl Gunnarsson, a more mobile and creative player. Ashton is a 23-year-old who was suspended for 20 games for using clenbuterol, a banned substance. Rielly is 20.
Like all struggling teams, the Leafs don’t have enough good players. General manager Dave Nonis, however, believes otherwise.
“It’s not that we have players that can’t do it,” Nonis said in a news conference following Carlyle’s dismissal. “We’ve seen it. The game in Boston was a good example. We competed hard and played the way we want to play. We played that way in Minnesota. It’s not that we can’t do it. The consistency hasn’t been there. It’s been trending downward for the last little while.”
The heat is now on Nonis to give his future coach — Peter DeBoer, Paul MacLean, maybe even Claude Julien if things go sour in Boston — better players to support Kessel. It’s not happening any time soon. The Leafs can’t afford to give up the assets that other teams want, including Kadri, Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and James van Riemsdyk. It won’t make them better.
This is a rebuild that will take time. Perhaps with a new GM calling the shots.
Confidence remains in ex-Bruin Ryder
On Thursday, Martin Havlat returned to New Jersey’s lineup after missing one game because of an illness. The Devils placed Havlat on a line with Dainius Zubrus and Michael Ryder with one intention: to help the ex-Bruin launch his shot.
“He has skill and we hope he can get the puck to Michael,” said GM Lou Lamoriello. “Zubie will do the work that has to be done. The way Martin controls the puck, we’re trying to get Ryder shots. He’s a goal scorer. We’ve got to get him shots.”
This should have been a bounceback season for the Devils. Last year, they missed the playoffs because of bad luck in the shootout (zero wins, 13 losses) and a sticky goaltending situation between Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur.
But things went off the rails for the Devils. Schneider started the first 20 games. It set a franchise record, but also put too much strain on the Marblehead native. Former coach Peter DeBoer paid for the poor start with his job.
“Earlier in the year, he played a lot of hockey,” Lamoriello said of Schneider. “We played a lot of hockey as a team. He started a lot of games. When you’re not used to that, you not only get physically tired, but mentally tired.”
It’s no coincidence that the Devils have struggled while Ryder’s been quiet. After 38 games, Ryder had just five goals. He landed just one shot in the Devils’ 3-0 loss to the Bruins. DeBoer made Ryder a healthy scratch for two games. The former Bruin was averaging 0.13 goals per game, the lowest output of his career. His shooting percentage was 6.5 percent, also a career low.
In comparison, Ryder averaged 0.43 goals per game in 2011-12 when he potted a career-best 35 for Dallas. That year, Ryder buried 16.6 percent of his shots.
Ryder is 34 years old. He will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. This downturn signals the end of Ryder’s career. The Devils still think there’s enough juice in his legs to get open and his shot in dangerous areas, either in New Jersey or elsewhere prior to the trade deadline. They may be in the minority.
Bruins could use upgrade on defense
Like all teams, the Bruins are in good shape once they gain the offensive zone with speed and numbers. If they cross the blue line with speed, they activate their forecheck. They have holes up front, but they can still work the walls, use the points, and look for openings down low to create their chances.
The challenge is getting there. All season, it’s been easier said than done.
There is no secret to playing the Bruins. Opponents have identified that panic sets in if they forecheck aggressively and get in the Bruins’ faces. On defense, the Bruins don’t have the personnel to retrieve pucks quickly and shuttle them forward before they’re picking the backs of their heads out of the glass.
Of their regular six-pack, Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug are the best at moving the puck. When he’s not skittish, Matt Bartkowski does the job, too. But it’s too easy for other teams to slam down hard, eliminate the D-to-D pass, and hound the Bruins below the dots. No club can succeed when it’s under assault behind the goal line.
By next season, Joe Morrow might be ready for full-time NHL work. He’s not enough. The Bruins need at least one more defenseman who can move the puck with poise.
With Arizona rebuilding, GM Don Maloney is listening on everyone, including Keith Yandle. The Bruins would have to send Krug the other way, along with maybe another young roster player, a pick, and a prospect. They’d also have to clear out cash. Neither is easy to do.
They’ve been wildly inconsistent in net
The cameras were rolling when Minnesota coach Mike Yeo exploded in practice on Wednesday. Yeo torched his players in a curse-filled rant and left practice early after smashing his stick. Yeo should have saved his screaming for his goalies. The Wild play with pace. They control the puck. But their goaltending has been AHL quality all season. Through 38 games, their five-on-five save percentage was .903. That’s worse than Edmonton’s (.905). On Thursday, the Wild placed Darcy Kuemper (13-12-1, 2.68 goals-against average, .902 save percentage) on IR because of an undisclosed injury. For now, 36-year-old Niklas Backstrom and former Boston University goalie John Curry will man the net. But the Wild need help from outside. One candidate would be Antti Niemi (16-10-4, 2.63 GAA, .910 save percentage). Minnesota and San Jose haven’t been shy about shaking up their rosters before. The Wild shipped Brent Burns and a 2012 second-round pick to the Sharks for Charlie Coyle, Devin Setoguchi, and a 2011 first-rounder. Niemi will be unrestricted after this season. The price wouldn’t be high. Niemi has never been considered a top-flight goalie, even with his ring from 2010 with Chicago. But Niemi is better than what the Wild have now.
Westward movement coming
The AHL’s shift toward the West looks inevitable. According to WAVY-TV, the Norfolk Admirals, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, will be purchased by the Ducks and moved to California. This is in line with AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews’s comments last month that the league needs a critical mass of clubs to replicate the travel and competition model currently in place in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. The western shift puts Worcester (San Jose’s affiliate) and Manchester (Los Angeles) at risk of seeing their clubs go, too.
Nyquist is willing to dive right in
Good of the NHL to pluck $2,000 from Gustav Nyquist’s wallet on Wednesday. Nyquist was fined for embellishment. Nyquist had been cautioned after diving against New Jersey on Nov. 28. He triggered the fine by diving against the Bruins on Dec. 28. Chris Kelly was called for tripping when he put his stick between Nyquist’s legs. But Nyquist sold it by going down. If the ex-Maine Black Bear is caught a third time, he will be fined $3,000.
Hanifin slotted at No. 4
Norwood native Noah Hanifin could be the third pick taken in June after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The latest ranking from ISS Hockey, however, has the Boston College freshman as the fourth-ranked player. Lawson Crouse, a power forward playing for Kingston of the OHL, is third. Crouse played well for Team Canada in the World Junior Championship. He scored a goal and two assists in seven games to help Canada beat Russia for gold. Crouse has a more pro-ready game than Hanifin, who would be best served with at least another year of development at BC. Hanifin skates at NHL pace and shows good vision. But scouts want the 17-year-old to raise his battle level to show he can joust with the big boys.
Winnipeg excited about Ehlers
The Jets have a future star in Nikolaj Ehlers. The Danish forward was outstanding at World Juniors, where he used his speed and skill to generate scoring chances against better teams. Winnipeg drafted Ehlers ninth overall in 2014. In his draft year, Ehlers scored just four points fewer than former Halifax teammate Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in 2013. Ehlers will turn 19 on Feb. 14, which means he will be ineligible for AHL play in 2015-16. Winnipeg, therefore, will be his best landing spot next season. He won’t have much left to learn in the QMJHL other than bad habits. Ehlers’s speed will be a good fit for coach Paul Maurice’s go-go pace.
Word inside the Bruins’ locker room was that the players did not think highly of Charlie Jacobs’s critical comments on Tuesday, his first official day as CEO of Delaware North’s Boston holdings. Their next game against Pittsburgh had rough patches, but they played with more structure in the third period and won in overtime. Maybe the words pulled the players and coaches tighter in an us-against-everybody manner . . . This is the first notes column written without the guidance of the exceptional CapGeek, which went dark on Jan. 3. Founder Matthew Wuest cited his health as the reason for the shutdown. The site’s richness, detail, and accuracy illuminated the intricacies of how teams manage the salary cap, build rosters, and consider transactions. It was a must-use resource, and is already very much missed. Best wishes and many thanks to Wuest for his contributions to the sport.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.