Kessel has fallen under fire of late for his poor defensive stats. How much of the Leafs defensive issues are his fault? Do linemates Bozak and van Riemsdyk deserve a share in the blame or is it management's fault?
Toronto - March 25, 2015 - For the last week, the Toronto hockey world has been obsessed with one stat line. Phil Kessel’s plus/minus, which happens to be tied for the worst in the NHL. Clearly this means he is atrocious defensively, correct? Perhaps if you need to fill air time you’ll follow that train of thought, however if you actually want to understand the situation one might strive to achieve some context for that number. Something that the media has failed to do to this point in the discourse surrounding Kessel’s play.
As it stands Kessel is a -35 on the season. What that means is he has been on the ice for 35 more goals against then goals for. The idea that this represents his defensive play isn’t accurate, mainly because plus/minus does a poor job of accurately representing anything. Example; earlier this season Leo Komarov registered a bench assist. Komarov made a break out pass, and went off on a line change. Moments after getting off the ice the Leafs scored and Leo got an assist. However because he was off the ice, the goal did not affect his plus/minus stat. This stat does not provide context for who did what on the ice, but simply who was on the ice.
The only takeaway from Kessel’s plus/minus is the fact that he is not scoring goals and neither are his linemates. This is a problem, and one that is deserving of criticism. However, to suggest that Kessel and company need to adjust their style of play to accommodate the lack of goal scoring is asinine. You do not pay Phil Kessel $8 million a year to get dirty in the corners, you do not pay him to chase down opponents who have found themselves behind the Leafs’ defence. You pay him that money to find space, take a pass, outskate the opposition and score goals. You pay him to do what makes him special. He is not doing that of late, so be critical, but be critical where it’s deserved. This dialogue about his lack of defensive play is as warranted as criticism of Jonathan Bernier for not producing more points. It’s not what they’re here to do.
Everyone wants answers. This team was bad before the trade deadline, and since they’ve gotten worse. Though that was to be expected. What needs to be understood is context. Phil Kessel gets paid more than anyone on the team, and the expectation is he score goals. Well he has failed at that, he is still second on the team in individual scoring chances, and scoring chances per 60. He’s still trying to do what he is here to do.
Tyler Bozak is -34, 1 worse than Kessel. Furthermore Bozak plays centre. He’s the number 1 centre on the team, at least on paper. He plays a position where high level defensive play is demanded, not just appreciated. Bozak’s defensive numbers are on par or worse than Kessel’s, as are James van Riemsdyk’s. Yet they receive no where near the same level of criticism.
Kessel’s not there to play defence like the other two are, so what’s their excuse? Say Kessel were to become a defensive savant overnight, but still didn’t score. We’d tell him to get back to his game and score goals. We’d tell him to leave the defence to those who are paid to do it. What’s deserving of more criticism, not taking the initiative to do what no one expects of you, or failing a basic requirement of your position?
Now I’m not suggesting that we shift the blame to Bozak and van Riemsdyk. That doesn’t fix anything. My point is that if they’re not scoring then of course their plus/minus will be atrocious. You took 3 player’s who have never shown any affinity for play in their own end, put them on the same line and then complained when they don’t play top level defence. Their lack of scoring has simply made this design flaw impossible to ignore, as opposed to the overshadowed truth it’s been in the past.
There’s no doubt that if Kessel is too play the style of game that makes him great, the other four players on the ice will have to do more defensively. This will be true regardless of who Kessel plays with, or on what team he plays. So should you not strive to account for that in your game plan? We’ve long known about Bozak’s defensive woes, a simple Google search will prove that fact. JvR is still young and developing so some lapses should be expected but this year has been brutal for him. JvR is a -33 for those curious. The Leafs top line is 1 dimensional, always has been and always will be so long as these three are kept together.
The solution is simple. Find Kessel a new centre. This isn’t about bashing Tyler Bozak, it’s about admitting a simple truth. Kessel’s centre has to be able to play a solid two way game. Simple as that. Kessel has to continue to play with the ice tilted towards the opponent's net to reach his potential, so the Leafs’ need a counter balance. That counter balance could be Kadri, or perhaps it’s a player like Ryan O’Reilly that they can sign in free agency. Either way it needs to be a priority.
I’ll leave you with this. Last year Alexander Ovechkin had the exact same plus/minus that Kessel currently has, -35. It was talked about, and he was mildly criticized for it, but in the end nobody really cared. Do you know why? Because he scored a league leading 51 goals. So lets not pretend that this is about Kessel’s defensive play because it’s not. If he were scoring, we wouldn’t give a damn about his defensive numbers. Let’s start focusing on the problems instead of inventing narratives to fill air time.
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