NEW YORK -- An argument can be made that Phil Kessel's hot start to this season was born out of one of the more frustrating stretches of his career last season.
About a week after suffering the indignity of being the final selection during the Player Fantasy Draft for the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C., Kessel found himself in a situation that was far more bothersome. Leafs coach Ron Wilson benched him during a blowout loss at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 5, then demoted him to the third line at the next day's practice. Kessel said he wasn't sure if things were going to work out in Toronto.
Wilson wasn't happy with Kessel's lack of production -- his star scorer was in the midst of a 10-game goal drought that would reach 14 games -- but he was truly displeased with the fact that Kessel was a defensive liability. He was minus-22 through 52 games, with the Leafs sitting at a disappointing 21-26-5.
From that point on, Kessel has been a different, more complete player -- and the Leafs are reaping the benefits.
Kessel finished last season with 13 goals, 17 assists and a plus-2 rating in 30 games. The Leafs closed the season 16-8-6. All of that success has spilled over into the 2011-12 season.
The 24-year-old Kessel leads the League with 9 goals and 15 points and is plus-5 for the Leafs, who sit atop the Northeast Division at 5-2-1. While the goals are nice, it's not what Kessel and Wilson are talking about as they prepare to play the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
"I've tried to be good defensively this year," Kessel said. "I was a minus last year, so I have to be a little better this year. We really want to make the playoffs, and we're willing to do whatever we have to do to get there."
"He's getting scoring chances and they're going in," Wilson said when asked if he's recognized any changes in Kessel this season. "If anything, he's played better in his own end than he has in the past. That's a real good thing. He's maturing as a player and as a person. That shows in his commitment to playing without the puck."
Teammate Luke Schenn has taken notice of Kessel's transformation.
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"I think he's always had that unbelievable skill and talent," Schenn said. "Now I think he wants to be the go-to guy. He's always been a great goal scorer, now he wants the puck on his stick more than ever. He plays with such confidence out there. He's working as hard as we've ever seen him work. He wants to be that guy, wants to be that go-to guy for us."
No one has ever denied Kessel is one of the most talented players in the League, but his personality isn't one that lends itself toward demanding the spotlight of a hockey-mad city like Toronto.
The native of Madison, Wis., has never been known as a great quote for the media, but that's usually something that doesn't carry over to interactions with teammates. Kessel prefers to keep quiet and avoid the type of attention that comes with being a supremely talented player.
But teammates say that's just Kessel's usual demeanor.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan got to know Kessel pretty well during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Not only were they members of the silver medal-winning U.S. team, but they were also roommates. Callahan said Kessel came just as advertised -- of course, he didn't snore -- but he was an excellent teammate with whom he got along well.
"I guess he's not one of the guys who's the loudest in the room or the first guy you hear when you walk into a room," Callahan said. "He has a quiet confidence about him. He prepares well and knows how to work. He's a good guy off the ice and a great player from the start he's had. He's definitely a guy we need to watch out for and don't give him too much time or space."
Defenseman John-Michael Liles joined the Leafs during the offseason after spending eight years with the Colorado Avalanche. He didn't know much about Kessel before coming to Toronto, but he said people shouldn't take his propensity for silence as a negative thing.
"I think you have expectations about somebody before you ever meet them, and coming in and meeting Phil, I don't think he's exactly what I expected," Liles said. "I think he's a lot quieter. I don't think you really understand until you're around him and meet him. He's quiet. He's not standoffish, but he's a guy who I don't think who searches out the limelight. He's very skilled and very good at what he does, but he doesn't have to be in that spotlight. I think his skills and how he plays the game does that."