Mythbusters: Kessel’s disappearance


Like most days of the week, the guys at Hockeycentral at Noon were doing their jobs and talking about hockey. Darren Millard threw out a question (thanks in order to Tyler Dellow for quoting it), as a radio host trying to explain the Leafs’ collapse would do.

“Is (Phil) Kessel starting to get a reputation as disappearing when the pressure’s on?”

This, in my opinion, can be answered, without blinking with a massive NO. But I blinked a lot and showed my math below.

The Pressure

First thing first, when is the pressure ever not on for Phil Kessel? We’ve gotten to a point where he may be the most unjustly scrutinized athlete in modern Toronto history, doing nothing but perform and improve while getting next to no credit. It’s not just him, either; the pressure is on for any member of the Leafs, as it always is.

A line like this reminds me a lot of then-SN590 reporter Howard Berger’s spat with then-Leafs coach Ron Wilson, stemmed from him asking why he didn’t call out Jason Spezza’s illegal stick “when the points meant something”, rather than when the Leafs were out of the playoff picture. Somebody is always going to scrutinize your play in this city, whether the team is 81-0-0 or 0-81-0 heading into the last game. 

Kessel can vouch; just a few months ago, Curtis Rush of the Toronto Star wrote a scathing criticism of Kessel’s performance. Not only were the Leafs doing well and not only was he producing points, but this was in response to his performance in practice.

The guy has been here since he was 21. They’ve complained about his trade, his contract, his demeanor, his shyness, his style, and pretty much everything else they can think of. He’s the highest profile forward on the most popular, most scrutinized team in the world. Don’t believe for a second that the pressure ever stops.

The Performance

Out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at his performance over this eight game losing streak, since that apparently is “the pressure”. It’s a small sample, but we’re not using it to show long term success; just his current performance. 

Adj. Numbers are to 1640 minutes (20 minutes a game over 82 games, prime Kessel territory).

Production Numbers

29-Mar 1 0 0 0 18.1 3 0
28-Mar 1 0 0 0 22.6 1 0
25-Mar 1 0 1 1 20.3 1 0
23-Mar 1 1 0 1 25 4 25
22-Mar 1 0 1 1 20.3 3 0
19-Mar 1 1 0 1 21 5 20
18-Mar 1 0 0 0 20.9 7 0
16-Mar 1 0 0 0 22 4 0
Streak 8 2 2 4 170.2 28 7.1
Pre Streak 68 34 39 73 1394.5 256 13.3
Total 76 36 41 77 1564.7 284 12.7
Adj. Streak 82 19 19 38 1640 269 7.1
Adj. Pre 82 39 45 84 1640 301 13.3
Adj. Total 82 37 42 79 1640 297 12.7

On-Ice Numbers (5v5)

29-Mar 1 1 14 15 48.3 0.2
28-Mar 1 1 14 15 48.3 4.2
25-Mar 2 0 15 19 44.1 17
23-Mar 0 0 13 12 52 13
22-Mar 1 1 25 27 48.1 -7
19-Mar 2 1 24 14 63.2 27
18-Mar 0 2 11 20 35.5 -25
16-Mar 0 1 11 21 34.4 -11
Streak 7 7 127 143 47 2.9
Pre Streak 58 48 1020 1280 44.3 -1
Total 65 55 1147 1423 44.6 2.2
Adj. Streak 67 67 1223 1377 47 2.9
Adj. Pre 68 56 1199 1505 44.3 -1
Adj. Total 68 57 1202 1491 44.6 2.2

What’s the verdict? Well, he’s clearly producing fewer points right now than he should be. But he’s still taking about the same amount of shots per game (a little lower, but nothing drastic). The issue stems from shooting percentage, something that has also dipped in Tyler Bozak (who was on pace for video game shooting numbers) and James van Riemsdyk’s games. 

Kessel is an 11.7% shooter over his career and about 12.5 in recent years, so you had to see a dip coming from his 13.3 rate. It’s not unrealistic to assume that he’s just feeling some regression. I had the same thing come up on TSN 1050 a few days ago when they asked me about what TJ Brennan has to do to get out of his drought on the Marlies; I told them that he shouldn’t change a thing, because he’s playing the same hockey and the goals will come. That’s the reality of a shooter; going away from something that’s worked based on talent is a dangerous proposition.

As for his on-ice stats, you’ll notice that the team is scoring about the same amount of goals with him on the ice, allowing more, but attempting more shots and allowing fewer attempts. There’s a few variables at play here; their differential is probably better because of score effects (they’re down more, so teams are sitting back and collapsing), but he’s still been a better possession player relative to the rest of his team than usual. In terms of the “flow of the game”, he’s actually improved compared to his teammates.

That’s a “watch the games” statement too; many will say that in some of these losses, he’s one of the few forwards who looks like “cares”. A dumb statement, but he’s been good in that regard. As for the goals against, that’s from Reimer and Bernier’s save percentages taking a dip. Not throwing them under the bus, because they aren’t to blame, but it’s reality. 

The Past

But lets say they’re right. This is just another thing to add to the list of his failures, right? RIGHT? People tend to point to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Olympics when making this argument. The problem is, that too is nonsense.

Before coming here, Kessel was a point-per-game playoff player (over 15GP) without being a PPG regular season player. Once he got here, he scored the game winning goal in two of the three wins over Boston. If Game 7 stays at 4-1, he has his third game winner of the series and an assist on the dagger. Realistically, we say he carried the team on his back. But because the Bruins came back, that’s his fault, right?

NO! Why would it be? The team was already overachieving, and besides, that, he wasn’t on the ice for the 4-2, 4-3, or 4-4 goals. He’s on the ice for the OT winner, but attempts to block the original Bergeron shot. it’s not like he was a liability on the play, and was probably the team’s best player throughout that game. Just like he was all series.

As for the Olympics? He was a bit quiet in 2010, but was used in sheltered situations. Many also forget that he hit the cross bar in the Gold Medal Game’s OT, nearly giving the USA their “Crosby Moment”. As for the this year? He was named best forward of the tournament! They lost to Canada again, sure, but also got thoroughly dominated by a team that was only winning games by close scores because their forwards forgot how to shoot. He and maybe Patrick Kane were the only two “threats” against the Canadians or the Finns. 

Kessel’s “pressure situation” flaw is this; he doesn’t get many chances to be in them. His only NHL moment came from a team that made it into the playoffs using black magic, and rode him and James Reimer through the series. When it all fell apart, he wasn’t even on the ice. Overall, he’s been stellar in these situations; though he hasn’t had enough of them for me to declare him a “thrives under pressure” guy.

The Conclusion

The media hasn’t blamed Phil Kessel anything lately. Darren Millard addressed this concern with a borderline unnecessary question. I get his reasoning; sports radio as a whole is designed to drum up controversy, and who knows if he actually believes it himself. But the reality is this – Kessel doesn’t crumble under pressure, nor is he even close to the reason for the Leafs’ collapse. It’d be nice if his stick went from “decent” to “Phil Kessel” soon, but that’s probably something you’ll have to wait out.

I understand that the Leafs don’t have time to wait things out, but maybe it’s time to address the actual flaws instead of relying on your best player to bail you out.


  • Dan

    Great article Jeffler. You’re one of my favorite writers on this site.

    I feel like Phil’s reputation, according to some people as “choking under pressure”, is mainly derived from his earlier years as a Leaf. I don’t have the facts in front of me, but I do remember seeing him struggle when he played Boston (que the “Thank you Kessel” chants). But over the last couple years, he’s really been amazing. People need to start accepting him for the great player that he is and his coolness under pressure.