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The Phil Kessel Windup

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Bear in mind, when you talk about the Phil Kessel Windup you are not discussing his release.

It’s not a release. It’s a flick, like a horse twitching a fly from its flank.

No, we are talking about The Windup, that audacious move particular to Kessel that warns defenceman over a few short strides they risk finding find themselves on SportsCentre for all the wrong reasons.

“What he does is instead of going forward, he usually comes back and takes a big loop,” said Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin. “He’s way down in our end and the d-man can’t a good gap on him. He does that a lot, especially on neutral zone regroups. Even on breakouts, he’s usually the last guy coming out of our zone so he gets some speed going in the neutral zone.”

In 17 games, Kessel has returned from a shoulder injury, jumped on to the ice without benefit of a training camp, scored 10 times and banked 16 points. The 22-year-old native of Madison Wisconsin is on pace for a career high 40-goals. That total would be the highest for a Leaf since Mats Sundin scored 41 seven seasons ago.

“It’s gone pretty well, I’ve had more chances,” Kessel said.

“I could have a couple of more goals. Last game, I missed an open net I probably don’t miss very often. That’s the way it works."

Kessel, brought to Toronto from Boston for two first rounders and a second, has had a profound effect on the lineup. The Leafs were 1-7-4 and losers of three straight overtime games when Kessel took the ice against Tampa Nov. 3 and recorded a 12-shot effort against the Lightning. They are 8-6-3 since. The team’s goalscoring has been jacked from 2.5 goals a game to 3.05. Five on five, they have outscored opponents 43-37.

What can’t be measured is the vexing effect Kessel’s speed has on opponents, even when he isn’t on the ice.

“Phil’s speed and how fast he can play kind of guns everybody else up,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “They see him doing some things he does and the other team has to back off. A team will say ‘oh-oh, here they come’ That will back all the defenceman off. The other guys start to do similar things with Phil out there.”

The looping breakout has always been part of Kessel’s game but in a Leafs’ system noticeably less restrictive than the one he left in Boston, Kessel can wind it up more than ever.

“I think it’s important to back defencemen off to give you more room to work,” he said. “If it’s scoring goals or passing the puck, making plays, I just want to help us win. Whatever it takes.”

Wilson does blame the presence of Kessel for one negative trend. The Leafs’ power play was clicking at 28 per cent, best in the league when Kessel arrived. The power play has stumbled to 19.8, tied for 14th in the NHL. The Leafs have one shorthanded goal over the last five games and no power play markers.

“I think we try to give the puck to Phil too much,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to use all the guys on the ice and get a few more shots on the point.” The Leafs play the New York Islanders at Air Canada Centre tonight.

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