Johnston on Leafs: Kessel needs to answer the bell

Phil Kessel. (CP/Frank Gunn)

TORONTO — It is newsworthy when Phil Kessel declines to speak with the media ahead of a playoff series against his former team.

That’s just the way it is.

Fans have every right to question why it even matters that the Toronto Maple Leafs star quietly slipped out the back door on Monday afternoon, but they shouldn’t ignore the swift and stern response that came immediately afterwards from the organization.

“That’s the first I heard of it, I just walked in here maybe 30 seconds ago,” said Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. “We’ll deal with that internally. Our players will be available on a going forward basis.”

In other words, it won’t happen again.

Having Kessel speak to reporters isn’t just about generating quotes for articles or clips for TV highlight shows or more fodder for Twitter; it is ultimately about accountability. And accountability is inarguably among the most important elements any successful team must possess.

If, for example, James Reimer was to allow a bunch of bad goals in a Game 1 loss to the Bruins on Wednesday night do you think he would want to speak publicly about it moments after the final buzzer sounded?

Not a chance.

But there is also virtually no chance he would actually go ahead and decline to do it.

One reason for that is the existence of a lengthy NHL policy governing media relations which stipulates that GMs can be fined if accessibility rules aren’t followed — “exponentially” so if it is a repeated situation. The policy also contains this little nugget, one that probably isn’t followed to the letter of the law in any city:

“All players and head coaches must be available to the media for reasonable periods before and after games as well as following all practices.”

That obviously includes Kessel, who is both the Leafs’ leading scorer (four years running) and the team’s most reluctant interview subject.

With Nonis pledging to intervene, you can expect Kessel to be in high demand; just wait until the team travels to Boston for Games 1 and 2.

On many levels, his performance during this series will be fascinating to watch. It is well-documented that Kessel has just three power-play goals to show for 22 games of wearing Zdeno Chara like a shadow since being traded away from Boston.

But, much like everything in the playoffs, it is far from a guarantee that the trend will continue.

The Bruins are struggling mightily — “We’re going to have to really step up our performance to have success in the playoffs,” general manager Peter Chiarelli said Monday — and Kessel is smoking hot. He carried the Leafs with 10 goals over his final 10 games and is said to be motivated about facing his former teammates.

“I know he wants to really have a statement series,” said teammate Nazem Kadri. “For me personally, I always loved going into buildings and getting booed and getting heckled. That always used to bring the best out of me.

“I think Phil’s going to react the same way.”

Kessel has shown that he can rise to the occasion in the past, scoring an impressive nine goals and 15 points in 15 post-season games with the Bruins in 2008 and 2009. That was just his second and third year in the league.

Now 25 and with more than 500 NHL games under his belt, he will almost certainly need to be a key performer if Toronto is going to have any success in this series.

Randy Carlyle believes it will be telling if Kessel can get things going with the man advantage.

“The confidence that offensive players get from power plays and being put in offensive situations, that usually builds throughout the rest of their game,” he said.

The veteran coach knows how the matchup game is bound to play out and indicated that Kessel would have to find a way to make an impact while being hounded by the six-foot-nine Chara.

“Good players have to play against good players,” said Carlyle.

At this stage in his career, Kessel has earned the distinction of being considered a great player.

Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux are the only three NHLers who have accumulated more points than him over the last two seasons. Kessel is also one of a small handful with at least 30 goals in each of the last five years (counting a pro-rated 34 for this shortened campaign).

Those stats would probably come as a surprise to many in the hockey world.

Despite playing in a hockey-mad market and for one of the league’s marquee franchises, Kessel generally flies a touch below the radar. That’s clearly the way he prefers it. He’d like it to stay that way too.

However, the status quo won’t suffice in this series with Boston.

After all, the bright lights are on and there are questions to be answered — both literally and figuratively. It’s at a time like this when a player as good as Kessel is called on to understand his role and perform.

“I expect him to play as hard as he can just like we expect of every other player,” said Nonis. “He’s a big part of our team and I know he’s probably excited about trying to go there and play as hard as he can.”

Once Kessel stands in front of a camera and says as much for himself, we can all move along.

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