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Who Will Feed Kessel The Puck?

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Phil Kessel should be in the lineup on Tuesday when the Leafs entertain the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s the good news.

When the Leafs landed Kessel for their first and second round picks this year and their first in the 2010-2011 entry draft, I think they did so with the knowledge that they had one player who would be a perfect fit as his centreman.

Let’s do this backwards and talk about who that player isn’t.

Start with Nazem Kadri, the Leafs first round pick this season who has five goals and nine points in 11 games with the OHL’s London Knights. Kadri brings the requisite speed to match strides with Kessel and the prospect of that future has to intoxicate Leaf fans.

Problem is, Kadri will continue to winter in the Forest City. He is a year away at best because his return to London was as much about bulking up as sharpening his skills.

More important is the fact that Kadri is more goalscorer than set-up man. Kessel would find himself with a bit more room as a consequence of Kadri’s aggressiveness in going to the net, but Phil Kessel needs the puck. If you watch a montage of his goals, you’ll find a healthy percentage coming off nice feeds from Marc Savard. Breakaway goals are not out of the norm.

That speaks to the presence of an excellent passer, in this case Marc Savard.

That doesn’t mean Kessel won’t thrive outside of Boston. It just means he needs a complimentary player who thinks pass first, shoot second.

The two obvious choices would be Matt Stajan and Mikhail Grabovski, but if you look at their career numbers (it’s a thin 115-game sample for Grabovski), you find an astonishing similarity. Sixty per cent of Grabovski’s points are assists. Rounded off, Stajan’s total is 61 per cent.

Compare that figure to elite playmakers such as Doug Weight (72 per cent), Savard (70 per cent) and Joe Thornton (68 per cent) and you get a player’s natural inclination. My guess is that Adam Oates’ 76 per cent is the all-time best.
It’s remarkably consistent statistic. Upper sixties is good. Low sixties or high fifties is fair. Sixty-nine per cent of Evgeny Malkin’s points come via the assist, Sidney Crosby’s rate is 68 per cent.

There is a but. Gunners traditionally come in around 60 per cent or lower which makes sense since each goal comes with a potential of two assists. Last year, for example, Alexander Ovechkin checked in at 49 per cent and was still the most dynamic player in the NHL.

Jeff Carter, runner up to Ovechkin last year in goalscoring had a 48 per cent assist ratio in 2008-2009.

Kessel’s career assist mark is 60 per cent.

But here’s the thing. When the career assist ratio of your gunner is the same as the players who would play with him, you have a problem you can’t solve with anything but a second puck.

Which brings us to the one player who has the vision and skating to stay with Phil Kessel.

His name is Tyler Bozak and right now he is cutting his teeth with the Marlies.

He doesn’t look like much of a savior. Bozak, signed out of the University of Denver hasn’t done anything big with the Marlies. He has one goal and three assists in eight games. He is minus four.

But Bozak is the guy. His most natural asset is vision. His second is the speed to put that vision to use.

And so while Phil Kessel is bound to help boost what has been an anemic Leafs’ offence, the fun will really start when Bozak and then Viktor Stalberg (overmatched in his first try at the NHL) find their way back to the Leafs’ roster.
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