Already in his short Toronto Maple Leafs career, Phil Kessel has accomplished something Mats Sundin never did: Being named NHL player of the month. Learning that Kessel was the first Maple Leaf to take home the prize since Felix Potvin way back in 1993 surprised me; I just assumed Sundin did it, that he was the last Leaf to win the award. All those months, all those years, all those points, Sundin leaving Toronto its leading scorer in team history, I figured he won it, at least once, and I simply forgot about it.
At the same time, I wasn’t surprised that Sundin never won the honours. Mats was remarkably consistent, an elite talent — undoubtedly — in the dead puck era, but never bald head and Swedish shoulders above the rest of the competition. Not even for a month. The haters will likely use that as ammunition against Sundin. I maintain, as I always have: Fuck the haters.
Wednesday night in New Jersey, Phil Kessel continued his torrid start to the season, picking up another two assists, and running his total to 20 points on the season. In 12 games. (After Thursday night, Kessel’s got 21 points in 13 games.) Absurd. Thank you, Kessel, indeed. So, I was curious: Had Sundin ever reached the 20-point mark in 12 games as a Toronto Maple Leaf? I know, it doesn’t mean much, 20 points in what’s a long, grinding season, but it’s a nice, round number, so I figured, why not? To Hockey Reference, yo.
Below are their respective Maple Leafs seasons, and how many games it took Sundin, and has taken Kessel, to reach 20 points on the year, and the date on which each reached the mark.
1995: 20 points — 20 games — February 25, 1995 (Lockout shortened season.)
95/96: 20 points — 14 games — November 16, 1995 (Injured; missed late October games.)
96/97: 20 points — 15 games — November 9, 1996
97/98: 20 points — 27 games — December 6, 1997 (No points in first seven games.)
98/99: 20 points — 16 games — November 12, 1998
99/00: 20 points — 17 games — November 29, 1999 (Injured; missed games in October.)
00/01: 20 points — 25 games — November 30, 2000
01/02: 20 points — 21 games — November 19, 2001
02/03: 20 points — 17 games — November 15, 2002
03/04: 20 points — 22 games — November 24, 2003 (No points in first five games.)
04/05: No games — No points — Only sadness.
05/06: 20 points — 24 games — December 26, 2005 (Injured all of October.)
06/07: 20 points — 18 games — November 25, 2006 (Injured in November. When it mattered.)
07/08: 20 points — 14 games — November 2, 2007
09/10: 20 points — 21 games — December 14, 2009 (Missed training camp and all of October.)
10/11: 20 points — 33 games — December 20, 2010 (Blame November.)
11/12: 20 points — 12 games –November 2, 2011
So, there you have it: Mats Sundin, in all his years literally and figuratively leading the Maple Leafs, never had a start quite as incredible as Kessel’s this season. The game’s certainly changed since Sundin’s time, but I can’t — won’t! — take anything away from Kessel. His first twelve games have been must-see TV. I read it on Twitter, and although I can’t remember who was behind the brilliance, I know it was retweeted by the King of Reweets himself, my friend and yours, @mlse: “If there’s a Phil, there’s a way.” That’s about the best way to describe this early season, isn’t it?
As for Sundin, I think it’s fitting that his first full season with the Leafs began much like his last, 20 points in his first 14 games. Even though, as a team, Sundin’s final season with Toronto was an incredible disappointment, Mats wasn’t. He was like a fine Swedish wine, seeming to only get better with age.
Also, for shits and giggles, I took a look at Doug Gilmour’s stats from his ridiculous 1992/1993 season, and it took him all of 10 games to score his 20th point on the season. Killer.
It all comes back to Phil Kessel, though. He’s doing things Mats Sundin wasn’t able to. And, well, that kind of blows my mind. And, much like Sundin, Kessel’s doing it without much of a supporting cast (with all due respect to sniper Joffrey Lupul). It’s also worth remembering that Sundin, when he became a Maple Leaf and in his first few years with the team, was surrounded by veterans: Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Mike Gartner, Mike Ridley, and Jamie Macoun, to name a few, who helped mentor him, and who eased his transition to our hockey-mad, Stanley Cup-starving town.
There are more parallels: Sundin was 23-years-old when he became a Leaf, Kessel only 22. Sundin played with the guys I mentioned above, and even Larry Murphy (Boo!), Kirk Muller, and the legend he was traded for, Wendel Clark. Kessel hasn’t been afforded that same luxury, if you can call it that. Of the Toronto team that Kessel suited up with on November 3, 2009, his first game in the blue and white, only Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Mike Komisarek, Colton Orr, Jonas Gustavsson, and Luke Schenn remain Leafs today.
The Leafs are Kessel’s team, and he’s inherited the responsibility a lot sooner than Sundin did, at a much younger age, and without veterans the likes of which Sundin had as teammates, whom Sundin certainly relied upon. It makes what Kessel has done — he’s the NHL’s leading scorer, and the Leafs are the NHL’s best team — not only this year, but in his first two seasons as a Maple Leaf, too, that much more impressive.
It’s early still, Kessel might never be as productive as Sundin was, Tyler Seguin might end up turning into one hell of a hockey player, and truthfully I hope he does, but it’s pretty obvious: Kessel was worth the picks.
Image courtesy artobserved.com, via this isn’t happiness.