Kessel shows little rust in Toronto debut

November, 3, 2009

TORONTO -- If first impressions mean anything, welcome to Toronto, Phil Kessel.

The 22-year-old star winger was downright dynamite Tuesday night in his Maple Leafs debut, dazzling the home fans with his speed and skill and launching 10 shots on goal at the Tampa Bay net, more shots than Lightning stars Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis combined.

"We brought him here to score … what was that?" Leafs coach Ron Wilson said in feigned criticism after his team's 2-1 overtime loss.

The former Bruins star did everything but score on this night, launching 19 shots in total toward the net, with seven blocked by Lightning players and two missing the net. The puck was following him around all night.

I'm stunned he looked this good after missing all of training camp, preseason and the opening month of the regular season, recovering from shoulder surgery and, oh, playing his first game with a new team and new linemates.

In just one game, you see what kind of dimension Kessel brings to a Leafs lineup essentially devoid of top-six, high-end offensive talent. Tampa's blueliners were backing up in a hurry when Kessel wheeled out of his zone with the puck. He opens that much ice around him, thanks to his sizzling speed.

"I felt good, but I'm just so disappointed in myself," Kessel said. "I had so many chances. I've got to score on those. That's my job."

Well, he'd be the only guy at Air Canada Centre disappointed in his performance. Wilson and GM Brian Burke went out of their way to lower expectations as Kessel's return neared, but surely even they didn't expect this. He played 23:50 minutes on the night, tops among Leafs forwards. That included 8:57 on the power play.

"That's a pretty good first impression," Wilson said. "I ended up playing him 23 minutes and change. He was sucking a little wind at the end, but after I saw what he could do, I had to put him out there."

When asked by a reporter whether he was used to playing those kinds of minutes in Boston, Kessel's answer revealed why he's now a Maple Leaf.

"I think I played about 15 minutes a game in Boston …" Kessel said, leaving it at that.

Oh, but that says everything. He won't have to worry about ice time on this Toronto team. Kessel averaged 16:33 in Boston last season; he'll hover around 20 minutes a game in Toronto if he can stay healthy.

His health was very much a concern with 6:40 to go in the opening period when Kessel, perhaps showing some rust, rushed into the Tampa Bay zone with his head down and got absolutely drilled with a massive (but clean) bodycheck from veteran Mattias Ohlund.

"You could see it coming. He was dancing through a minefield," Wilson said. "But he came back. You've got to give him double thumbs-up for that and still being a dominant player."

Kessel said he doesn't ever remember being hit like that.

"I was more worried about my head than my shoulder," said Kessel, who called it a clean hit. "He got me good."

All in all, it was a nice opening chapter in Kessel's five-year, $27 million partnership with the Leafs.

There had better be more to come. Somewhat lost in Kessel's debut was yet another loss for the Leafs. They have just one win in 13 games. The first of those two first-round picks traded to the Bruins for Kessel still looks awfully juicy to Boston GM Peter Chiarelli.

It's unfair, but Kessel's performance this season will go a long way toward determining whether that's a lottery pick.

Olympics in the air
There was a definite Olympic feel to Tuesday night's Tampa Bay-Toronto game at Air Canada Centre.

In one box sat Canada's Olympic brain trust: GM Steve Yzerman, as well as Kevin Lowe, Doug Armstrong and Hockey Canada executive Johnny Misley. In the Leafs' GM box, as usual, was Team USA GM Brian Burke, plus U.S. Olympic coach Ron Wilson behind the Leafs bench.

The Canadian management team is meeting in person for the first time since camp in August. The leaders are planning to be in Columbus on Wednesday night to take in the Sharks-Blue Jackets game to get another look at Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley and Steve Mason.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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