chicagoblackhawks.com begins its string of top prospect profiles (in alphabetical order) with Phil Kessel. Check back next week for profiles of Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews and more 2006 Draft Coverage.
A year ago, many hockey insiders believed Phil Kessel could have challenged phenom Sidney Crosby to be the top pick in the 2005 Entry had he been eligible. Surely such a highly regarded player would be the overwhelming favorite to go #1 this year then, right?
Apparently not, as most scouting services project fellow American Erik Johnson, a 6-4 'Pronger-esque' defenseman, to be the top prospect in the 2006 Draft class. NHL's Central Scouting went so far as to drop Kessel from 2nd in their mid-year ranking of the best North American skaters to 5th in the final report, and there is no clear consensus among insiders on where Kessel should be taken in relation to the other top centers in the draft -- Jonathan Toews and Jordan Staal.
So why has Kessel's stock dropped?
"His production might have tailed off a bit, but I think that's because of the level of competition [he faced last season]," explains Blackhawks amateur scout Ron Anderson.
"Central Scouting is one organization's opinion of him. I think there are probably a lot of people that still think he's the best player in the draft."
In his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, Kessel recorded 14 goals and 22 assists in 34 games -- not very impressive when compared to Sidney Crosby's 62 goals and 66 assists in his final year with Rimouski in the QMJHL, or even Jordan Staal's 28 goals and 40 assists this season for Peterborough in the OHL.
In both cases, however, Crosby and Staal played close to double the number of games Kessel did as a college athlete. Perhaps more significantly, Crosby and Staal had the benefit of competing against players their own age.
"People are suggesting that Kessel didn't have a good year. I don't look at it this way," Anderson says. "He stepped on the ice with 21 and 22 year-olds. Phil is not a big guy, and when you step on the ice with guys who are four and five years older than you in some cases, there's an adjustment period to the physical part of the game. He wasn't able to freewheel and do some of the things that he's done in the past.
"I certainly believe he'll be able to do that in the future as he catches up age-wise," adds Anderson. "As he gets into the flow of things physically and gets stronger, he's going to go right back to being the explosive, dynamic player he's always been."
The independent scouting service Red Line Report still puts Johnson at #1 on their draft list, but ranks Kessel right behind him at #2, calling him a "pocket sized Ilya Kovalchuk."
Red Line's summary supports Anderson's position, noting that Kessel has been wrongly criticized for "not dominating college hockey every night." However, he still led all college freshman in scoring and tied as the leading scorer at the last World Junior Championship.
"He's just been a good player too long to suddenly not be a good player," says Anderson. "He was still second on his team in scoring as a freshman at Minnesota, which for most people would be an outstanding season.
"If he had gone and played in the Quebec Major Junior league or some place this year, you might be looking at a guy who scored 115 points and everybody would be saying, 'There's nothing wrong with this guy.' "
Red Line also notes the other frequently heard knock on Kessel -- his attitude. Nicknamed "Thrill," there are those who believe Kessel is a bit of a prima donna. But Anderson says he hasn't seen anything that would lead him to believe that Kessel is a 'head-case.'
"He's done nothing to convince me of that," says Anderson, who has seen Kessel play around 20 times the past three years. "In my interviews and talks with him, I've gotten no indication that he's a problem."
Of course, as important as character is to Dale Tallon, the Blackhawks GM knows that skill and speed reign supreme in the new NHL -- attributes Kessel has in spades. Red Line says Kessel has "blazing speed" and quickness, and "just embarrasses goalies on breakaways."
"He just puts defensemen on their heels," says Anderson. "If he doesn't create a scoring chance for himself, he's going to open up the other two guys on the ice because everyone is going to back off trying to play him."
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