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Teammates know quiet Kessel has a more open side

by Mike Brophy

TORONTO -- Phil Kessel sure stirred the pot.

Now the hockey world waits to see if he can duck Zdeno Chara the way he ducked the Toronto media Monday.

Kessel, the Toronto Maple Leafs' leading scorer this season, was nowhere to be found when the media descended upon the Toronto dressing room following practice Monday. Typically Kessel avoids the media whenever possible, but considering the team was about to play its first Stanley Cup Playoff game in nine seasons, there was an expectation he'd make this one exception. He did not.

Then on Tuesday, after Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis assured the media Kessel would be available, the gifted right wing wandered into the dressing area while most of the media was at the other end of the MasterCard Centre conducting an interview with coach Randy Carlyle. This was not the way to make amends, and Kessel was brought back out to again meet with the scribes.

"What do you guys want now?" a perturbed Kessel said. He then added, "You guys don't talk to me that much during the year and you needed me yesterday?"

Well, yeah.

Kessel was traded to Toronto from the Boston Bruins -- the Maple Leafs' first-round opponent -- in former Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke's most costly and controversial transaction. In three seasons with Toronto, it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Kessel. On the bright side, the 25-year-old finished sixth in the NHL in scoring last season and tied for seventh this season, but he has been a very streaky scorer that disappears for long stretches and, until this season, had been unable to help the Maple Leafs make the playoffs.

The team gave up two first-round draft choices that turned out to be forward Tyler Seguin and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011.

At the end of the day, how Toronto fans and media react to Kessel largely depends on how he plays in these playoffs. To succeed, he'll have to figure out a way to deal with his old nemesis Chara, the 6-foot-9, 255-pound defenseman who has helped limit Kessel to three goals and nine points in 22 games against his former team. Chara has been Kessel's kryptonite.

Asked about the challenge of going up against Chara, Kessel said, "He's a good defenseman. He's won the Norris Trophy I don't know how many times now. He's one of the best defensemen in the League, if not the best, and I'm going to have to play well."

Toronto coach Randy Carlyle went into a bit more detail when asked how his team's top scorer could succeed against such a great defender.

"It's not any different than any other player in that, when you have the type of skill set that allows you to create offense, you have to be as simple as you can going up against a big body like Chara," Carlyle said. "The reach and the range and the physical size of the individual plays into it, and it's easier said than done in a lot of ways to get away from that reach. Normally most guys wouldn't be as close to you as he is. He uses his stick very effectively, and the one thing that we encourage our guys to do is use a change of pace. Stop deep in the zone and not in the blue-line area. If you can drive the puck in deep and force him to make stop-and-go decisions and move the puck off of your pass and then move yourself."

The interesting thing about Kessel is that while he may be misunderstood by the fans and media, he universally is loved by his teammates, who maintain that what the public sees is not necessarily what he is always like. There is the Phil Kessel who seems shy, uncomfortable and standoffish in public, and then there's the person who never keeps his mouth shut behind closed doors.

Asked about Kessel's shyness, teammate Clarke MacArthur said, "You mean socially awkward? He's not shy. He's a lot more open and chirpy when the media is not around. When all the eyes are on him he goes into a bit of a shell, but when he's with people he's comfortable with, he's a different guy. He's talking all the time and always joking around. The outside world just scares the little guy."

Left wing Joffrey Lupul said, "Phil is a great teammate and great guy. He's got an awesome sense of humor, too, which I'm sure people on the outside looking in never get to see. We get to see it every day. He's a guy who always has a smile on his face, which is again the opposite of what you'd see when he's on camera. That part of the game is not for everyone. Some guys shy away from it a little bit, and that's fine with us as long as he keeps showing up on game day and doing his thing."

The outside world never may get to see the goofy character Kessel can be with his teammates. When he does speak to the media, he rarely scratches below the surface in terms of analytical insight and offers even less about his personal life.

On the ice, there is no denying Kessel can be electrifying. He is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and has a laser for a shot with a hair-trigger release. He's scored at least 30 goals four times, topped by 37 last season, when he had a career-best 82 points.

He hasn't gotten to 40 goals yet, and though he appears to have all the gifts to hit that magic number, the one thing he seems to lack is consistency. He had 20 goals and 52 points in 48 games this season -- numbers that prorate to 34 goals and 89 points in an 82-game season -- there were long stretches of games during which he was held without a goal. He didn't score in Toronto’s first 10 games of the season and later went nine games without a goal from March 20 through April 4.

Yet he finished eighth in the League in scoring. How good will he be if he finds that elusive consistency?

"He's like the definition of a game-breaker," Lupul said. "You can not notice him for a period and then he gets a step on a guy and scores. Now I think he's added a little bit of an element to his game where he can make some really amazing passes. Earlier in his career his shot was so good he was probably coached to just skate and shot and shoot and shoot. I noticed playing with him last year he's getting better at passing. He realizes he can be a great playmaker as well as a scorer."

If Kessel never speaks to the media again, he will still be judged by what he does on the ice. The biggest challenge of his career is lying at his feet. It's called playoff success.

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