When Joffrey Lupul joined the Toronto Maple Leafs, Phil Kessel helped rejuvenate his career. Now it's Kessel's chance to get a fresh start.
After six seasons with the Maple Leafs, Kessel is in his first few games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where the star winger is playing on a line with Sidney Crosby. His former teammates hope Kessel skating with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is a match made in hockey heaven.
"He's got some good candidates over there to play with," friend and former roommate Tyler Bozak said. "I know he's excited for the opportunity. ... They are such a good team, they have so much firepower up front that they can break out at any time."
Kessel faces the Leafs for the first time since the trade Saturday night in Pittsburgh. He has a goal and an assist in four games so far.
After peaking at 37 goals with Toronto, there's reason to believe Kessel will be a 40-plus-goal scorer with the Penguins. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews called adding Kessel to Crosby and Malkin an "overdose of skill."
"Everybody is excited to have him as a teammate, to know that with one chance in the slot he can change a game pretty quickly," Crosby said before the season. "Those guys aren't easy to find. I think that regardless of who plays with him, he's going to create a lot of offence."
Kessel boosted the careers of Bozak, Lupul and even James van Riemsdyk during his tenure with the Leafs. He was a lightning rod for criticism despite his production and could thrive under less pressure with the Penguins.
Count the Leafs among those rooting for Kessel ??? 79 games a year.
"I want to see Phil do well," Lupul said. "Obviously we want our team to finish ahead of theirs. But personally I want to see him do well, and it's a great opportunity for him."
Lupul said when he arrived in Toronto in 2011, his career path was a mystery because of injuries. Skating with Kessel made Lupul a point-a-game player and helped earn him a US$26.25-million, five-year contract.
Likewise, Bozak has Kessel partially to thank for his $21-million, four-year deal.
"He's a great player and he obviously helped my career a ton," Bozak said. "He's someone that I want him to score as much as he can and I want him to do as good as he can."
Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf expects Kessel to have a solid offensive season thanks to the system and superstar linemates.
"I wish Phil nothing but the best," Phaneuf said. "I wish him nothing but success except when we're playing against him."
The Leafs might have a bit of a leg up playing against Kessel because they know his tendencies. But given how deceptive his shot release is, that could be moot.
Bozak's advice on how to stop Kessel is: "Just don't let him shoot.
"You can't give him any opportunities where it's him one-on-one with the goalie and he has an opportunity to shoot," Bozak said. "There's not many goalies in the world that can save a shot like his when he's got a little time and space and can kind of look and pick his spots."
It's that kind of skill that led the Penguins to acquire Kessel on July 1 for draft picks, prospect Kasperi Kapanen, defenceman Scott Harrington and centre Nick Spaling. The remaining seven years of his contract at a cap hit of $6.8 million is worth it if Kessel scores as expected and helps Pittsburgh get close to another Stanley Cup.
"He thrives on the opportunity," Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. "They're struggling a little bit right now, but with guys like that on your roster, the struggles can't last too long."
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