TORONTO – October was a productive month for Phil Kessel.
The 26-year-old signed an eight-year extension worth $64 million on the eve of the regular season before posting a bountiful nine goals and 18 points in 14 games.
But just as the weather has chilled outside, so too has the Leafs' best player.
Now tied for 31st in league scoring, Kessel went pointless for the ninth time in the past 11 games in an embarrassing 6-0 loss to the Blue Jackets on Monday night. He has just one even-strength point in November and a scant three points all month (Mason Raymond leads the team with six points, trailed by the now press box-bound Trevor Smith with five). In fact, he has gone 11 straight games without registering even a single assist – he led the team in each of the past two seasons – his last helper coming on Oct. 29.
Considering the team's ongoing struggles to produce offence at even-strength – shut out for the second time all year, they have just 10 goals in the past 10 games and sit 20th overall – this lingering dip in production from their top player is no small thing.
Kessel may be a streaky goal scorer (most are), but with age and experience in Toronto, has evolved into an incredibly reliable and certainly elite point producer. After stalling at the outset of last season – he failed to score in the first 10 games – he never went more than two games without registering a point. A year before that, he never went consecutive games without a point until January.
So what gives?
It would be easy to point to the extended absence of Tyler Bozak – who returned Monday after missing 12 games – as the reason for such woes, but that would fail to ignore Kessel's history of producing offence without him. In the two games that directly followed Bozak going down with injury in Columbus, Kessel posted three goals and six points alongside Nazem Kadri in wins over Pittsburgh and Edmonton.
Of course, the Leafs would lose Dave Bolland to injury four nights later in Vancouver, jumbling their situation at centre further and thereby impacting Kessel. James van Riemsdyk was forced to the uncomfortable middle for four games, replaced on the top line by the incoming and still inexperienced Peter Holland thereafter.
Kessel and Bozak certainly have a defined chemistry with one another – the top reason the latter was signed for five years in the summer – and perhaps Kessel's slump simply manifested in the absence of a consistent set-up man – though he tends to generate offence himself in many regards, even with Bozak in the lineup.
(Though he's played the majority of his games in Toronto with Bozak, Kessel has actually lined up with eight other centres as a Leaf: Kris Versteeg, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski, Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk and Peter Holland.)
"Is he back?" Kessel shouted repeatedly with glee when he saw Bozak being interviewed prior to Monday's game.
Save for the absence of Bozak, an injury (or the flu bug, which nearly kept him out of a game last week) would help to explain the recent slowdown and Randy Carlyle didn't exactly refute the suggestion that Kessel may be hurt, noting last week that "all our players have bumps and bruises".
It may just be a simple and increasingly rare slump, one that becomes magnified as the team struggles to produce offence. Kessel remains the Leafs leader in goals, points, and even-strength points.
It was may have been their worst loss all season.
The Leafs were spanked 6-0 on home ice by a Blue Jackets squad that was missing two of its best players – Brandon Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik – and had just played on the other side of the country over the weekend (a 6-2 loss in Vancouver on Saturday).
"It was a very frustrating game for our hockey club," said a puzzled Randy Carlyle afterward. "It just seemed like we lacked the necessary pace that was required to compete in the game and that's mind-boggling."
So boggling for Carlyle was the lack of energy following a complete day-off on Sunday.
The Leafs allowed a season-high six goals, were shut out for just the second time all season and mustered a mere 18 shots on Sergei Bobrovsky. They also allowed two power play goals for the third time all season, failing to score on a single earned man-advantage.
"Maybe a little bit of a wake-up call for us," said Tyler Bozak. "We're getting a little too comfortable."
"We talk about outworking teams and tonight, we got outworked," Dion Phaneuf concluded.
2. Reimer's evening
Two nights after he stopped 49 of 50 shots in a 2-1 shootout victory over Washington did James Reimer yield six goals on 21 shots, hooked late in the third frame against the Blue Jackets.
"What can he do?" said a frustrated Carl Gunnarsson of Reimer. "We had a really [expletive] game and hung him out to dry."
Defensive breakdowns and odd-man rushes marked the evening, the Leafs netminder often left with little to no chance of success opposite a club that scored four goals combined in the previous three games.
"I think that was on par with the rest of our group," Carlyle said of the goaltending from Reimer. "It was a team effort and it was nowhere near what we needed and obviously goaltending's part of that."
The league leader in save percentage entering the night, Reimer dipped to a .934 mark, now 6-3-0 on the year.
"I don't really have much to say," said Reimer, following his first loss at home this season. "It just wasn't my night tonight. You'll have nights like that where the puck just eludes you. As hard as you work and as much you try and bear down, it just doesn't work out sometimes. It's obviously disappointing when it happens and frustrating, but it's just the way she goes."
3. Lacking offence
Never a team that shot the puck often – they average 26 per game, third fewest in the league – the Leafs are finding their early luck drying up in recent weeks. Monday marked the eighth time in the past 10 games that they scored two or fewer, their shooting percentage in that span just seven per cent.
"I thought we had a lot of zone time tonight," said Bozak. "We were just trying to be too cute and make the extra pass when we did have a chance to shoot."
A frequent complaint of the head coach, Carlyle has harped often on the need for his team to shoot the puck with more frequency. The 18 shots on goal against Columbus were the second fewest his team has managed all season (14 vs. Minnesota on Oct. 15).
"We're very selective on when we want to shoot the puck," he said after the shootout victory over the Capitals on Saturday. "I would say we have some thick heads."
The Leafs have scored just 10 even-strength goals in the past 10 games and sit 20th overall in that regard this season. Of the 63 goals they've scored thus far, 18 have come with the man-advantage.
4. Lupul hurt
Save for the injured Dave Bolland, the Leafs lineup on Monday was about as full as it has been all season. But just as one returned (Tyler Bozak) did another go down. Joffrey Lupul left late in the middle period with a pulled groin.
"I don't know what that means," said Carlyle of the injury. "He just said he pulled his groin."
5. Bozak's Return
Bozak said the most frustrating aspect of a hamstring injury that kept him out of the lineup for 12 games was the uncertain healing time for it. "There's no real timetable for it, I guess," he said. "You kind of heal when you do."
Bozak was injured on Oct. 25 in Columbus, returning to the lineup against those very same Blue Jackets on Monday night. There was an expectation – even voiced by Randy Carlyle – that the 27-year-old would play against the Capitals two nights earlier, but he remained out, finally activated off long-term injured reserve on Monday.
"I wanted to play last game," he said, "[but] the doctors said I shouldn't play and I couldn't play."
"It's been tough sitting out," Bozak continued. The hard part is bagging at practice every day pretty much. You'd rather be playing the games then bag-skating after practice, but [the extra couple days] does help. It should be in good shape when I get out there now."
1 – Even-strength points for Phil Kessel in November.
9 – Number of games without a point for Kessel in the past 11 games.
2 – Number of times the Leafs have been shut out this season.
10 – Even-strength goals for the Leafs in the past 10 games.
.934 – Save percentage for James Reimer this season.
74% – Success rate for the Leaf penalty kill in the past 10 games.
6 – Points for Mason Raymond in November, first on the team.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"What can he do? Can't blame him for anything. We had a really [expletive] game and hung him out to dry."
- Carl Gunnarsson, questioned on James Reimer's performance following the 6-0 loss.
The Leafs travel to Pittsburgh for a Wednesday night affair with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.