Kessel expected to make Leafs debut Tuesday

November, 2, 2009

TORONTO -- Phil Kessel skated to the net in practice Monday, froze Jonas Gustavsson with a fake shot and dished it off to linemate Matt Stajan, who put it in the back of the net.

Just like a riding a bicycle, right?

We'll find out Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Barring a last-minute hiccup, the 22-year-old winger is expected to make his much-anticipated debut as a Toronto Maple Leaf more than six weeks after a blockbuster trade from the Boston Bruins.

GM Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson have wisely tried their best to minimize the expectations on the talented forward in hockey's biggest market. The message is simple: Kessel isn't wearing a cape and he's not going to be a one-man savior.

That kind of message, however, is a tough sell when your team has one win in the season's opening 12 games (1-7-4) and the player in question cost a pair of first-round picks plus a second-rounder. The nightmarish thought of every Maple Leafs fan alive revolves around the idea of giving up a lottery pick to the Bruins next June. The natural inclination of every Leafs fan, unfair as it may seem, is to see immediate dividends from the newly acquired star.

So, no, there's no pressure on Kessel at all. Yikes.

"There's always pressure when you play hockey," Kessel told the large media horde after practice. "You don't feel it [because of what I was traded for]; you just feel it because you want to help the team win, get in the playoffs or at least compete for a playoff spot. I think we've been playing better the last four or five games here, so I think things are starting to turn around."

He's right about that; the Leafs have played much better of late and, to be honest, deserve a better fate than their one victory. They easily could have won in Dallas, Buffalo and Montreal, but settled for overtime/shootout points in the standings.

And perhaps easing the pressure on Kessel is the fact he joins a lineup that already has the second-best power play in the NHL at 28 percent. You didn't read that wrong, folks; the Leafs have the second-best power play in the league right now.

The challenge for Kessel is twofold. For one, any player who misses all of training camp, the preseason and the opening month of the regular season is going to be massively behind the eight ball, especially recovering from a surgically repaired shoulder. But as Wilson argued Monday, that may not be the most challenging factor in his return.

"Remember, he's playing on a new team with completely different teammates and a different style of play than he was used to with the Bruins," said the Leafs coach. "I think I'm more concerned with that than with him overcoming an injury. If he had this surgery and was still in Boston and he's gonna step on the ice with guys he's more familiar with, it would be easier than here."

When Kessel hits the ice at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, he will not have magic man Marc Savard dishing him the puck. He will have Stajan. Nothing against Stajan, a hardworking, two-way center, but nobody will soon confuse him with Mr. Savard.

"Obviously, Savvy's a good player, he passed me the puck a lot," said Kessel. "I'm not too worried. I've done it before without him other places. I enjoyed playing with him, but I think playing with Stajan and [winger Jason] Blake won't make much of a difference to tell you the truth."

Stajan was probably the most sought-after player in NHL fantasy leagues Monday after word spread from Leafs practice that he had drawn the assignment of centering Kessel.

"Well, we know that he can score goals," said Stajan. "I'm just going to go out there and play the way I do. I know he's going to find the holes and the soft spots where we can get him the puck, and hopefully he'll be able to bury them like he has in the past."

The problem for Wilson, of course, is he does not have a bona fide No. 1 center to put with Kessel. He's got Stajan, John Mitchell or Mikhail Grabovski. They're all second- or third-line centers. So Wilson gave the first shot to Stajan because he figured that was the best match for now.

"John Mitchell likes to carry the puck, Grabo likes to carry the puck and we have to have someone who's going to feed Phil," explained Wilson. "Again, he hasn't practiced on a line except for today."

Wilson may try several different combinations before all is said and done.

"I know since he is a pure goal scorer, all our centers are going to want a shot to play with him to prove they can set him up somehow," said Wilson. "We'll go game to game, shift to shift, to see how it's going."

In the meantime, Wilson and Kessel have more at stake here than just the Maple Leafs. With the Olympic Games in mind, both hope this is a massively successful comeback.

"Obviously, he's in our plans," said Wilson, wearing his Team USA head-coaching hat. "If you look at the U.S. team, there's only one guy who put up big numbers in terms of goals last year, and that was Zach Parise. Everybody else was like 20 goals or less, except for Phil. We need him. This is like wearing two hats. I need him to score for us [the Leafs] and regain his confidence so he can score for the U.S., as well."

OK Phil, your task is simple: Get the one-win Maple Leafs away from the lottery danger zone, hopefully in the playoffs, and help the 2010 U.S. Olympic team win a medal in Vancouver.

Welcome back, kid!



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