Although he’s not considered the team’s best player, Phil Kessel could play a significant role in helping Team USA capture a gold medal at the Olympics.
Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter would be ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ franchise player in such a debate about the team’s best, but given how well Kessel has played leading up to the Olympics, it shouldn’t be a surprise if he emerges at the end of the games as the best American player on the ice.
No American player has recorded more points than Kessel this season as only Alex Ovechkin has scored more goals than the Maple Leaf. Kessel has recorded 31 goals and 65 points in 60 games this season and currently sits fourth in points in the NHL at the Olympic break. His American teammate Kane is right behind with 63 points in 59 games, but considering the amount of support Kane has with his Chicago Blackhawks teammates, it nearly makes Kessel’s numbers look even more impressive.
There’s no question the Stanley Cup defending Blackhawks have significantly more talent to help Kane put up more points than Kessel’s Maple Leafs, who often struggle to find any sort of secondary scoring. It could be debated that if Kane and Kessel swapped places, Kessel would have even more points than he does now while Kane would have fewer points playing with a limited Maple Leafs roster.
Considering how Kessel has put Toronto on his back for the majority of the season, it’d be hard to imagine him not playing a key role for Team USA. However, Kessel’s streaky scoring reputation could ultimately determine just how far the Americans are able to go. In October, the Maple Leafs’ finished 10-4 with Kessel leading the way with 18 points in the month.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain his scoring pace and struggled in November, recording only six points while Toronto posted a 4-6-5 record in the month.
It wasn’t a coincidence the Maple Leafs’ success was directly related to Kessel’s ability to put points on the board, which is why when the winger exploded for 20 points in January, Toronto finished the month with a 9-5-1 record despite beginning it at 1-4. In his first four games in February before the Olympics, Kessel finished with eight points while the Maple Leafs went 3-1.
When Kessel is playing at a high level, Toronto is as dangerous offensively as any team in the league. His speed and playmaking combined with one of the best wrists shots in the world make Kessel one of the hardest players to try and contain defensively. Opponents can’t handle his speed and they become confused with whether or not they should deny his lethal shooting ability or play for a pass, given that Kessel has three more assists than goals this year.
On a bigger ice surface, Kessel is only going to be more dangerous as he’ll have more room on the ice to operate given his impressive skating ability. Since Kessel isn’t a physical player, playing on international ice should only enhance his skills as it’ll be easier to skate past defenders, and there will be more passing lanes and shooting lanes.
Kessel doesn’t need much room on North American ice to snipe a puck top-shelf, which is why the Team USA power play could be the best at the Olympics when he steps onto the ice. He’s one of the hottest players entering the Olympics, and he’s been carrying the Maple Leafs all season. By the time the closing ceremonies roll around, don’t be shocked if Kessel finishes the games as one its top scorers.
Be sure to get your Toronto Maple Leafs tickets to watch Kessel when he returns from Sochi.