It’s been just about five years since the Toronto Maple Leafs said “Hey, do you know what we need to add? A Kessel”, and took the steps to do so, offering a kings ransom to the Boston Bruins for Phil in September 2009 – a move which gave them one of their best wingers of the modern era. The year is now 2014, and while he doesn’t have the same hype around him, his younger brother Blake is joining the organization as one of four new signings for the Toronto Marlies.
Blake isn’t exactly like his brother. They only look truly look alike when they’re standing next to each other. Phil was born in Madison, WI, while Blake was born in the nearby suburb of Verona. Blake plays defence, while Phil plays Right Wing. Both took the college route, but played in different states and in different situations (Phil in his draft year, Blake after the fact). Phil was drafted fifth overall, while Blake was drafted in the sixth round.
But some things stay the same. “Oh good!” Blake said with a laugh when he realized that his media scrum was one of voice recorders and not one of broadcasters. “The fewer cameras the better”. The distinctly Kessel teetering between shyness and outgoingness is just as evident in number 52 as it is in number 81. They both sound similar too; to the point where a blind person or someone on a telephone could confuse them.
“He’s always helped me” said Blake of his brother. “He’s always looked out for me since we were young, he still does to this day. He sees little things in my game, whenever he can watch one a game, and he’s told me little things that he sees on the ice.”
Over the summer, Blake has been staying at Phil’s place – presumably becoming the fourth member, along with Phil’s dog, Stella, and current Leafs top line centre Tyler Bozak. “It’s great. I’m lucky enough to get to live with him.. we had a pretty good relationship growing up, so it’s always good to see each other. It’s nice having at least an extra couple of weeks.”
Especially when you can fly under the radar. “Nobody recognizes me! I’m okay. I can walk down the street just fine. I’ll walk ahead of or behind him – fans don’t stop me.”. Phil, of course, is arguably the highest profile member of the highest profile hockey team on the planet.
But, one shouldn’t just look at Blake Kessel as “Phil’s brother”. That’s an unfair typecast, especially when your skillset is completely different, both in level and in tool-set. As it stands, Blake is looking at making the jump from the ECHL to becoming a full time player in the AHL.
“I just need to keep improving on everything. There’s always something to get better at, whether it’s stick positioning, or defence. Making sure you make the right places, simple plays, or simple passes. Being solid in your own end, and jumping into the offensive zone whenever you can. That’s what I like to do.”
In the ECHL, that part of his game shows. In 101 career games, Kessel has put up 16 goals and 61 assists – a more than solid clip from the point., including 33 points in 43 games with the Orlando Solar Bears last season. He hasn’t broken out to the same extent at the next level (74 games, 3 goals, 21 assists), but hopes that this could be his year to prove himself.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of depth here, but I’m just going to work hard to see how it all plays out.”
He’s not wrong about the depth. It seems like at least three of the Marlies’ top four defencemen will return to the team this year – one of Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy, Andrew MacWilliam, or Korbinian Holzer may stay up, but the bulk if not all of them will take regular spots. After that, Kessel has the likes of Eric Knodel, Victor Loov, Matt Finn, Kevin Marshall, and Tom Nilsson to compete with for one of the remaining spots. Loov and/or Nilsson could go back to the Swedish Hockey League, but you also have Brendan Mikkelson, who signed an AHL deal today to add to the mix.
What Kessel has above most of those guys, however, is offensive upside. The Marlies are sorely going to miss what they got from TJ Brennan last year, and while nobody is going to replace that individually, giving solid minutes to, say, Finn and Kessel, while leaving Spencer Abbott on the point during powerplays could fill some of the void. At least, that’s what he’s going to have to hope for if he wants to get significant games in.
On the bright side, the Leafs have agreed to a two year exclusive affiliation with the Solar Bears, a team that he’s already familiar with. Leafs management has implied that they would like to have more of their players involved with that roster, and the setup is already fantastic, as Blake can attest to.
“Obviously, (the Leafs) are a top organization in the NHL. The way they treat their AHL players and prospects is top notch. Orlando is a nice location; we played a similar type of game in terms of systems as they do over here, so guys who head down won’t need a big adjustment. If you make the best out of the situation, if you go down there and work hard, and you’re ready to go once you come up here, you never know what happens.”
The Leafs seemed to agree with him. When I spoke to him, he was on a tryout. Today, he’s a member of the organization. It’s up to him to carve his own path, in spite of his brother’s success. “Just do what you do, and don’t try to be someone else. The best way to show yourself off is to do what you do best on the ice.”