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In Which I Compare Phil Kessel to Mats Sundin

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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.

Mats Sundin:

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

Phil Kessel:

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.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 4th, 2011 at 10:10 am

I Learned Nothing From Last Season’s 4-0-1 Leafs Start

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Life — growing up, the human experience — is about making mistakes. They’re inevitable. What’s important on this journey is to learn from your mistakes. Not repeat them. So I’m a bit disappointed in myself because, with the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting pretty at 4-0-1, just as they were last October after five games, here we are, again: I’m ecstatic. I’m thinking this team’s different, this team’s the one that will end the postseason drought. I learned nothing from last year, when the Leafs got my hopes up, only to murder those very hopes a month later, in November, when the games mattered. Nothing at all. Actually, I’m even more excited this time around, after five games. Should the Leafs win four out of their next five, I think it’ll be pretty obvious to everyone else, as it will be to me, that the Maple Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup.

How could you not be excited after watching The Phil Kessel Show these past two weeks? Sure, people, including Ron Wilson, are talking about Kessel being a streaky scorer and really being in the zone right now, and that might well be the case, but Kessel looks like a different player on the ice. While his supporters, and I’m surely one of them, have continued to trumpet the fact that he is one of the NHL’s most dangerous offensive players, already a three-time 30-goal scorer at only 24-years-old, it’s the complete nature of Kessel’s game that has all of us thinking things we probably shouldn’t be. You know, hardware: a Maurice Richard trophy, maybe an Art Ross, hell, maybe even a Selke. Kessel looks dangerous out there, on every shift. You didn’t have to be watching to know when Kessel had the puck over the Leafs’ first five home games; you could hear it. He had the crowd buzzing. It was … fun. And if Kessel lights up Boston …

I know, I know, this Leafs team isn’t perfect. Far from it. It almost makes them easier to love. Nobody likes a perfectionist. But the flaws are evident, five games in. It’s a serious problem that Kessel and linemate Joffrey Lupul are scoring all the goals. Someone, anyone, please find a pineapple for Mikhail Grabovski to murder; he’s got to get going. The defence has been poor. Not that that’s surprising, really. But my worst fear seems to have been realized: Luke Schenn has been infected by the disease known as Mike Komisarek. Schenn looked awful on Winnipeg’s second goal Wednesday night, just brutal.

But one man’s struggles are another man’s opportunity, and after the way Jake Gardiner played last night, it’s impossible to keep him out of the lineup. And good on the kid. For selfish reasons, of course. Gardiner’s making it easier to let go of Tomas Kaberle.

It’s so much easier to support this team when the trades Burke has pulled off — Kessel, Gardiner, Lupul, Dion Phaneuf — seem to be working, and working out quite well, isn’t it? Speaking of trades, I wouldn’t object to the acquisition of Rene Bourque, but I’m mostly surprised that Calgary would even consider trading again with Toronto. The Flames are one fucked up organization.

A few words on Lupul: helluva finish on his first goal of two last night. What I love most about his success is that I know how much it pisses off, and will continue to piss off, Edmonton Oilers bloggers and fans. I hope he scores 35. In the battle of rebuilders, screw the Oilers, I say.

A favor: If you see anyone out there wearing a Carl Gunnarsson jersey, shake his or her hand. I will do the same.

Another reason to be a lot more excited about this season’s edition of the Leafs, compared to last: James Reimer. The fate of this 4-0-1 team doesn’t rest on J.S. Giguere’s groin, and the wounded psyche of Jonas Gustavsson. Advantage, huge advantage, this year’s squad. In all seriousness, I’m looking forward to seeing how Gustavsson does tonight. The Bruins aren’t scoring goals; they’ve got 11 in six games, Kessel’s scored seven in five. If this Leafs team wants to be taken seriously, now’s the time to capitalize on a struggling Boston squad, and to make sure that not one bloody soul at T.D. Garden is chanting “Thank you Kessel!” Well, except for Leafs fans. They should definitely be chanting “Thank you Kessel!” at T.D. Garden.

Also tonight: Nazem Kadri makes his debut. More skill. And there’s nothing wrong with more skill. Can’t wait.

The Leafs have yet to lose in regulation, their power play stinks, their penalty killing stinks even more (77.3%, ugh), they have zero secondary scoring, and, as cliched as I know it reads, have yet to play a full 60 minutes. Yet I’m thinking 6-0-1, what with Boston and Montreal — both struggling, both beatable — on the schedule before a date with the Flyers.

Should the Leafs take 13 points out of their first available 14, sorry, but I have to think playoffs. It’d be a crime not to. Let’s be honest: I’m thinking playoffs, hockey in spring in Toronto, already. It helps takes my mind off the coming long and depressing winter.

Image courtesy Crystal.  Thanks, Crystal. It’s my favourite.

Written by Navin Vaswani

October 20th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Delusions of grandeur

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Over the past couple of weeks, as the Maple Leafs have rocketed up the standings, I’ve heard it on radio call-in shows, have read it in emails and text messages, and have even had it said to my face: “Don’t bother. They do this every year.”

“This,” of course, being Toronto’s late season sprint towards eighth place — the promised land — in the Eastern Conference, after the rest of the field got off to a head start.

“Don’t bother”? Really? Would you rather the Leafs didn’t, and continued to, you know, stink?

Personally, I can’t see how anyone, if they’re out there, isn’t over the moon about James Reimer, finally annointed Toronto’s number one goalie. The “deeply religious” and unassuming 22-year-old, who looks so goddamn comfortable between the pipes, as if he feels no pressure at all, has me thinking I need to find God. While Alex Ovechkin’s busy posting photos of Phil Kessel on Twitter, Nikolai Kulemin’s out-scoring his Russian comrade. Kulemin continues to improve, year over year. He’ll pot 30 this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be a 40-goal man in the years to come. Speaking of Kessel, chosen last by his peers in the all-star draft, only 13 players in the NHL have scored more goals than #81. Five of those 13 players have 28 goals to Kessel’s 27. It rings true about the all-star game, too: Draft Schmaft.

The list, headed by career years from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, goes on. This isn’t a Leafs squad riddled with underachieving veterans and the Andrew Raycrofts and Vesa Toskalas of the world. This is the youngest Maple Leafs team I can recall, attempting to claw back into a race they were told they were out of months ago. This is fun, goddamnit, and I will enjoy every second of it.

In years past, when the Leafs did “this” before, the killjoys of the world complained that all it did was set Toronto back when it came to the draft. A valid point, sure, even though it wrongly assumes the Maple Leafs can draft decent talent outside of a top-10 pick. Considering Boston’s got Toronto’s first-round pick, I’m having a difficult time wondering why there would be any hesitation to step aboard the bandwagon.

The Maple Leafs are rebuilding. They always have been. Trading two firsts, and one second-round pick, for a proven first-round pick, didn’t make it not a rebuild. Nor did signing a couple of veteran defencemen in free agency, even though Mike Komisarek has turned out to be nothing short of the worst. But: Assets have been recouped. First-round draft picks, and prospects drafted in the first round. All of a sudden, Ron Wilson’s not so bad behind the bench. And Brian Burke’s work in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline was top-notch, or anti-Joe Nieuwendyk. Keith Aulie’s playing 20 minutes a night. Carl Gunnarsson’s playing between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Kessel’s leading the way. Don’t bother, my ass.

The way I see it, the Leafs could be playing out the stretch. In a perfect world, they’d be fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but the world is far from, and never will be, perfect. Meaningful Leafs games, that’s what these — tonight! — are. Or, as I like to call them, playoffs before the playoffs.

Update:

Leafs 3, Flyers 2. Playoffs!!!1

Image via this isn’t happiness.

Written by Navin Vaswani

March 3rd, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Family feud

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I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.

- Pedro Martinez

Everyone’s got a daddy. Ryan Miller is Toronto’s. Twenty-four wins, and a .931 save percentage, in 32 career games against the Maple Leafs; a formality when the two teams hook up. Looking at Miller’s splits, his track record against the Northeast Division is stellar:

VS Boston: 19-5-7, .914 SV%

VS Montreal: 18-8-5, .919 SV%

VS Ottawa: 12-15-2, .914 SV%

Go figure, the Senators are the only team Miller loses to with any regularity.

Enough about Miller, though. In the aftermath of another Leafs beating at the hands of the Sabres, it’s not all bad news. Phil Kessel and Ron Wilson are feuding, with Kessel being demoted to a new line in practice, leading to #81′s now infamous quip: “Me and Ron don’t really talk — that’s all I got to say about that.”

Dysfunction! It’s entertaining. Wilson vs. Kessel is fantastic, because it’s a battle Wilson cannot, under any circumstances, win. Brian Burke and Ron Wilson may be BFFs, but Burke’s got only one horse in that race.

Also, a query: What the hell does a demotion from a line with Tyler Bozak and Joey Crabb look like? Ah, Darryl Boyce in the middle, instead of Bozak. Right. And here I was all excited that the Crabb and Kessel experiment was over, after Wilson finally moved Crabb off the line Saturday night in the second period.

Kessel’s right; it’s not working out. Crabb’s played 20 games with the Leafs, the majority of them on a line with Kessel, and hasn’t scored a goal. Kessel is goalless since January 11th, when the Leafs were on the west coast road trip of our dreams. I know Kris Versteeg’s found some chemistry on a line with Colby Armsrong, but when the Leafs are so thin up front, trying to spread the offence over three lines isn’t an option. What happened to the top six, bottom six mantra? Versteeg on the left wing, Kessel on the right, and Bozak in the middle. If that’s not an option, and Wilson wants to keep Versteeg and Armstrong together, I’d rather see Nazem Kadri playing on the wing instead of Crabb. And at what point does the Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur line have to be split up in order to get Kessel going? That -22 is murdering the hopes and dreams of kids across the land, and my fantasy team.

It came as no surprise that the Maple Leafs followed up their best effort of the season Saturday night with one of their worst. It was a game full of poor decision making, fanned shots and passes, and a ton of turnovers. A humble reminder that we are Leafs fans, and that, no, we can’t have nice things.

James Reimer’s candidacy to lead our great nation is on hold. Until he wins his next game. But it really doesn’t matter who’s in net when: a) Luke Schenn and Armstrong choose to go up the middle in their own zone; and b) the Leafs can’t kill penalties.

I don’t know about you, but the past five years have made everything seem daunting. An 82-83% penalty kill rate? Only in my dreams.

Penalty Killing:

2005/2006: 80%

2006/2007: 78.5%

2007/2008: 78%

2008/2009: 74.7%

2009/2010: 74.7%

2010/2011: 76.9%

The standings are that much more disheartening. Five games above .500? An impossible mountain to climb.

Send help.

Image courtesy Mike Bayne.

Written by Navin Vaswani

February 7th, 2011 at 11:55 am

NHL All-Star Game Mock Draft (Schmaft)

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The title’s pretty self-explanatory, no?

Team Lidstrom won the imaginary coin-toss. They’ll have the first overall selection.

Round 1

Team Lidstrom: Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs.

Team Staal: I don’t care.

Rounds 2 through 17

I don’t care.

Round 18

Team Lidstrom: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators.

Team Staal: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens.

Even though, according to the rules, all goalies have to be chosen by the end of the 10th round, I’m hoping Lidstrom and Staal go off the board, and Price falls to last. Dead last.

For all this seasons NHL betting visit the home of online betting at betfair canada, visit the site for more information.

Image, of the number of people who actually enjoy the NHL’s All-Star weekend, courtesy of Ronnie Yip.

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 27th, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Posted in Hockey

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Bizarro world

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I’m still reeling over what happened Tuesday night out in Silicon Valley. The turn of events that led to the Maple Leafs defeating the Sharks were unprecedented. As George Costanza would put it: There was no precedent, baby!

Think about it. First and foremost: James Reimer. James motherfucking Reimer. The keeper who’s come out of nowhere and swept a hockey-mad city, one that wants nothing more than replacement-level goaltending, off its feet. Through two periods, Reimer had stopped 33 of 34 shots, including all 21 he faced in the second period. With Toronto trailing 1-0, Reimer was doing what goalie after goalie after goalie had failed to do so for the Maple Leafs since the goddamn lockout ended years ago: keep his team in the game.

In the second period, the Maple Leafs killed five San Jose power plays, including a short two-man advantage, and one four-on-three advantage. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yes, coached by Ron Wilson and, among others, Keith Acton. Five power plays. In one period. In one game. I celebrated with drink. Reimer, of course, was a big part of the effort. And one of the penalties, the final one to Francois Beauchemin, was complete bullshit, a retaliation call after he was dangerously tripped by Devin Setoguchi in a race to the puck.

When trailing after two periods, Toronto’s record was 1-17-2. But they came out in the third period with a purpose. You know, to win. To not waste the solid effort from their rookie between the pipes. And it was Phil Kessel, of course, who tied the game at ones. His goal, number 19 on the season, good enough for eighth in the NHL, was a dazzling display of skill and patience, as if to justify Kessel’s selection for the all-star game.

Four minutes later, Toronto’s power play struck. Clarke MacArthur’s backhand found the net, after a beautiful pass from — who else? — Tomas Kaberle. And that power play, which couldn’t buy a goal early in the season, is now top-10 in the league, rolling at 18.9%. Ben Eager’s thank you card is in the mail.

A minute later, San Jose tied the game. Typical. Surely the Leafs, in the second of back-to-back games, would fold. But they didn’t. Cue more bizzaro happenings.

Like defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, for some reason skating by the front of the San Jose net, deflecting a Dion Phaneuf shot from the point past Antti Niemi. It was only the eighth goal scored by a Maple Leafs defenceman all year, and would eventually be only the second game-winning goal courtesy the back end. The point is: Maple Leafs defencemen don’t score. Especially not on the road in a 2-2 game in the third period.

Could the Leafs hold on? Again? Just as they did the night before in Los Angeles? If there was any doubt, Dion Phaneuf erased it by almost ending the life of Dany Heatley as he skated into the Toronto zone. Phaneuf clocked him. It was the finest hit I’d seen Dion throw as a Maple Leaf. The bodycheck I’d been waiting for.

Reimer shut the door, of course. Just like he did in Los Angeles. He stopped seven of eight shots in the third period. The Leafs won important faceoffs in their own zone, and iced the game thanks to another MacArthur goal, this time into an empty net, which, let’s be honest, is just as intimidating as Niemi. Four wins in a row. Five straight victories on the road. Likely the apex of 2010/2011 Toronto Maple Leafs fandom.

In the end, Ron Wilson had victory number 600 in his back pocket, becoming only the seventh coach in history to reach the milestone. And it came against his former team. I won’t lie: Based on Wilson’s time in Toronto, I was still in disbelief he’d won 599 games before Tuesday night. But it’s not too late for Wilson. Should the Leafs turn it around, Ron may get his own statue yet. (Looking smug, of course.)

The power play’s working. There’s a guy in the crease playing as big as his six-foot-two frame. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail “Mickey Grabs” Grabovski, Kris Versteeg, Kessel and MacArthur are all on pace to have career offensive seasons. Luke Schenn has found his game. Kaberle is reborn. The penalty kill, the useless goddamn penalty kill, hasn’t allowed a goal on the road trip. It’s 10-for-10. It’s creeping towards an 80% success rate, and respectability. Believe it or not, after the bizarro Leafs assured themselves of a winning road trip (!) Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps Wilson hasn’t been given enough credit.

While I’m doubtful Toronto Maple Leafs hockey can get much better than it was on Tuesday, all I ask is that there be no return to regularly scheduled programming. Fuck losing. And poor goaltending. They’re both bloody exhausting.

Image of a beaming Clarke MacArthur courtesy of Reuters via daylife.