TAMPA – The reluctant star has cleaned up in shirt and tie and is now ambling for a refrigerator stocked with water and an array of sports drinks. His team has just clinched a position in the postseason for the first time in nine years, two more helpers to his team-leading point total aiding the cause in a 4-1 victory over Ottawa.
Only three players have accumulated more points in the past two seasons than Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs 25-year-old reluctant star. One is the reigning Hart Trophy winner (Evgeni Malkin), another the reigning Rocket Richard winner (Steven Stamkos) and the third a rising star in Philadelphia (Claude Giroux).
And yet somehow Kessel lingers just outside the spotlight, an underappreciated talent in a major hub of hockey. Now with 48 points on the year, good for eighth in league scoring, he has been an almost silent (and yet lethal) force on the first Toronto playoff team since 2004, his accomplishments lying just out of focus, beyond those for example of James Reimer and Nazem Kadri.
"I don't think he wants to be in the spotlight," Carl Gunnarsson said of Kessel, who has 16 goals and 44 points in the past 36 games. "I think he likes to fly under the radar a bit and not get the attention that comes with being a top player in the league. But he's doing everything he can to be up there, but at the same time just staying out of the spotlight somehow."
Kessel is not one for the limelight. Frankly, he seems to want no part of it. In four years in Toronto he has shown not even the slightest desire for attention, his dealings with the media, despite a profile as arguably the team's best player, rare and elusive. Unlike Kadri, there is no excitable or fiery personality with which to embrace, or Reimer, a story to celebrate and rally behind. Kessel is just content to let his production do the talking.
That production in a lockout-shortened year includes 32 assists, the second-best number by any winger this season (Martin St. Louis) and a number he's bested only once before, totaling 45 helpers a year ago in what proved to be a career season. He's also done so without Joffrey Lupul, his all-star running mate, and a big, space-creating number one centre. Kessel has additionally embraced the detailed demands of his third NHL coach, demonstrating growth in a long lacking area of the game. "Offensively I think he's been great the whole time," said Gunnarsson, "[but in the] last year I think he's been way better defensively, just back-checking and doing all the right stuff. I think he's been way better at that."
He has, in essence, added dimensions to a game that was once thought to have been defined by goal-scoring and goal-scoring alone.
That ascent makes a decision on his long-term prospects with the organization far simpler. Kessel becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2014, due a significant raise from the $5.4 million annually he garnered upon signing with Toronto in the fall of 2009. The price-tag will be high, but considering the rarity of talents – and the inability to find such talents elsewhere with rival clubs locking up their young stars – the organization faces an almost inevitable decision, that is to lock him up long-term.
Clutching his first playoff berth as a Leaf late Saturday evening, Kessel was intent to make a quiet exit out of ScotiaBank Place. Prodded for comment at arguably the highest point of his Toronto career, the reluctant star declined with a grin before sauntering over.
"It's been awhile," he said softly of the team's achievement. "I think we've played well this year and I think we deserved to make it. Obviously I'm real excited about it."