Did we really need confirmation that Phil Kessel was hard to coach? That the Toronto Maple Leafs’ $64-million man got to do things a little differently than some of the other guys?
We don’t need analytics for this. No need for Kyle Dubas to break it down.
I’ve seen him back-check so I’m comfortable in saying the eyes have it: "Phil the Thrill" gets to do it his way. In return, he scores goals.
But if there was any doubt about the delicate balance of co-existing with an elite offensive talent in the context of a team environment, there isn’t any longer.
"There is a double standard in sports," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle in his first press conference of a season that many think he won’t be around to see through until Christmas. "Talented people have to be given a little more of a rope. They have to have some freedom to take their artistic values and go paint the picture. [Phil Kessel] is that type of player."
But at what price does indulging the artist who likes to paint outside the lines come? And we’re not just talking about the eight-year contract he signed last October, when the Leafs were still thought to be a team on the rise, living off their strong showing in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before their analytically defiant 2013-14 campaign fell in on itself.
Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in hockey; Kessel is incredible at doing just that. The speedster was second in the NHL in even-strength goals last year with 29 and has finished sixth, seventh and sixth in scoring over the past three seasons, respectively. As an added bonus, he hasn’t missed a game in four straight years, suggesting the extra layer of insulation he’s known to carry might have a lubricating effect. Who knows?
But when the Leafs made the soon-to-be-27-year-old Kessel their franchise cornerstone, they did it knowing that he’s going to score his way, playing his style.
Normally, the first day of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp is kind of like a condensed version of baseball’s spring training, only held indoors. All the players feel great. They’re all in good shape or — if injured — expect to be ready for the season. Returning players are determined and newcomers are optimistic.
It goes round and round until it gets easy to forget the Leafs finished 3-13-0 and sank from ninth in the NHL to 23rd in the space of a month and are returning a core of players — Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak and Joffery Lupul — that many in the hockey world feel are simply not good enough to change the club’s trajectory.
That was all brought into sudden and sharp relief by a Toronto Star story by Dave Feschuk that pulled the curtain back on the challenges the Leafs and Carlyle face.
It featured a trio of minor hockey coaches who attended a clinic put on by the Ontario Hockey Federation back in August, where new Leafs assistant Steve Spott spoke revealingly about the realities of making a difference with the team.
He told a story about getting Kessel’s input on a new breakout strategy — no small matter given the Leafs spent more time in their own end than almost any other team in the league — and the superstar winger basically said, "Nope, not doing it."
Spott went on to say — tongue-in-cheek — that Kessel hates Randy Carlyle and coaches generally.
"He hates me and he doesn’t even know me yet," jokes Spott, who earned his NHL promotion for his work with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies a year ago after a long career with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
I can’t speak for the sources and what they heard — and it says volumes about how small the world of elite hockey is in Canada that none of them wanted to be quoted by name — but I can confirm that the gist of what Spott was quoted as saying rings true.
As one person in the Leafs’ brain trust put it to me: "Phil’s an amazing talent, but he hates authority."
It made for a hell of a first day at the office for Spott, who will surely be brushing off his Kitchener Rangers stories for use at any clinics going forward. The whole affair was downplayed, but not denied.
For the record, Kessel says he doesn’t hate Randy Carlyle and one of the reasons for that is his head coach allows him to be him, a player so mesmerizingly skilled that his flaws are easy to overlook.
"Randy lets me get away with stuff that other guys might not get away with," Kessel said. "Obviously I play different than someone else on the team and I think me and Randy have a pretty good relationship and we get along real well in that sense."
Here’s the issue: can winning follow if your best player, and the one under contract for the next eight seasons, has played his whole career believing that team success flows from his individual brand of brilliance? So far in Kessel’s career in Toronto, it hasn’t.
If your leaders set the tone, what tone is Kessel setting? What price do you really pay for consistent 30-plus goal seasons?
Carlyle might be right when he says that Kessel has made strides towards being a more complete player under his tutelage, but no one thinks that Kessel is on the verge of becoming the Leafs’ answer to Steve Yzerman.
Phil will be Phil.
When he wasn’t being asked about joys and challenges of coaching Kessel, Carlyle — echoed by general manager Dave Nonis, who is equally on the hot seat this season — was talking about a team with a much higher degree of accountability than the one that limped to the finish a year ago.
Carlye talked about higher expectations for off-season training and juggling his forwards and their ice time to create three balanced lines. Nonis talked about a training camp so competitive that he expected NHL players on one-way contracts to get buried in the AHL.
Kessel didn’t get the email, I guess.
After the season ended, Kessel headed to Florida where he lives and where hockey was the furthest thing from his mind. His highlight was catching a 450-pound shark.
"I fish, golf, hang out with friends, family. Just a normal life, right?" he said in his Fargo twang. "I don’t talk hockey or have anything to do with hockey … honestly? I’ve skated 10 times — maybe — all summer. "
The Leafs first on-ice activity at training camp will come Friday and will involve an on-ice version of the ‘beep’ test, where the participants basically skate lengths of the ice until they can’t keep up with the metronome-like beeps, which come at increasing frequency. It’s not really a test of hockey ability, but a test of how hard you trained in the summer and how important it is to you to make a first impression.
The expectation internally on the Leafs is that Kessel will be the first to tap out; let the guys battling for their careers skate until they vomit.
It’s another case of Phil being Phil. The theory is doing well on a beep test or buying in on a specific proposal for a breakout won’t matter in about three weeks time as Kessel starts to get down to the serious business of scoring goals.
That’s what the Leafs are paying Phil Kessel to do and they’re an organization that has chosen to allow him the leeway he feels he needs to do that.
The $64-million dollar question: is it worth it?