Phil Kessel was there, then he was gone. He was the first off the ice after practice, as is his custom, as has been his custom while leading the Toronto Maple Leafs in scoring for several years now, and in fact while scoring more points than almost any other player in the NHL. When the dressing room opened, Phil was not there. This is also a custom, though a less reliable one.
In Toronto, like a city of alert defenders, we always circle back to Phil, one way or another. He talked. He didn’t talk. He scored. He didn’t score. He skated last summer. He didn’t skate. (It’s probably the second one.) The Leafs have a lot of problems; they have problems the way most people have furniture. Kessel isn’t the biggest problems with the Maple Leafs, even on bad nights. Tuesday night was bad. Phil, mocked recently on a magazine cover, didn’t want to talk about it.
We have circled back to Phil this time because on Tuesday Phil played just 12:57 in a 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers. He was pretty awful. He glided, lost puck battles, watched four Rangers goals from close up. He was dropped to the fourth line with David Booth and Trevor Smith until he played two shifts in the final 3:11 down a goal, which allowed him to avoid a career-low in minutes in his six seasons as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
It was Phil near his worst, and it was the first time in his time in Toronto that he was semi-benched, to this degree. Remember when Leafs assistant coach Steve Spott spoke to a coaches’ conference last summer, and according to those in attendance, said ex-Leafs coach Randy Carlyle let Phil be Phil because “the hierarchy doesn’t want to deal with Phil. He scores 30 a year and that’s all they want”?
Tuesday night, Horachek decided to coach Phil, just like he coaches everyone else. Phil was back with David Booth and Trevor Smith at practice Wednesday, on the third line. Hey, the top line’s been an implosion all season long.
“I’m asking (the Leafs) to bring that good attitude,” said Horachek Wednesday. “You can bring that work ethic, and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the guys who all band together, and when it’s not 100 per cent, when the team’s not 100 per cent, that kind of determination is what pulls everybody back in … and we can survive by keeping it close, our goalie making a big save, and get back going again. After two periods it was kind of hard to watch for a bit there, and I was saying ‘come on guys, let’s do something about it.’ I wasn’t very happy with it.
Asked about Phil specifically, Horachek said, “(Phil) worked in practice. There were a number of guys I didn’t think played very well, and sometimes lines changing kind of gets your attention all the way around. I think there’s other guys that didn’t play very well as well, and when half your team isn’t playing well, that’s not a good sign.
“I wasn’t very happy with him (Tuesday) night, and I didn’t spend a lot of time today having meetings and video, I didn’t show him anything, I just said ‘we have to get back to work.’ ”
“This isn’t about just whether Phil does what he does, or doesn’t do,” said Horachek. “I think the whole team has to be better. It’s not about one player. Everybody has to compete. Some guys score more, and some guys are more physical. It’s not just about Phil. This whole team needs to be stronger.”
Horachek won’t be this team’s head coach next season, but he’s coaching all the same, trying something. He’s using ice time as a tool. He’s not worrying about whether or not the front office would take calls on Phil Kessel, as part of the coming rebuild. He’s not worrying about, as he put it when he scratched David Clarkson this week, the political ramifications of the move.
Which is fine, because Horachek is doing this with the tacit blessing of management, which gave him the job and let him coach. This is not a bad thing. It’s not the biggest deal. It’s not like it’s going to drive Phil out of town.
It may not need to, though. Whether he chooses to talk or not, whether he scores or not, whether he plays like he is present or not — as long as he is here, we will always circle back to Phil. He’s the best player on this team, and it can rise or fall with him.
And when the rebuild arrives in earnest he will be priced, to find out what he could fetch. Almost everyone will be, but Phil should be a prize. He might not age well, if he approaches the game like it’s easy, because right now it is.
But that Evander Kane deal? Phil is better than Evander Kane. Right now, though, Peter Horachek is coaching Phil Kessel. It’s a sign of the new era here, in its way, and that’s OK. May as well, for however long it lasts.