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Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Phil Kessel reacts near the end of the Leafs loss to the Boston Bruins in NHL action in Toronto on Saturday February 2, 2013. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Phil Kessel reacts near the end of the Leafs loss to the Boston Bruins in NHL action in Toronto on Saturday February 2, 2013. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NHL Weekend

All eyes on Leafs' Kessel as trade rumours swirl Add to ...

One player has six goals, tied for the lead on the team.

The other has just one, getting his first in Game 11 on Thursday here in Winnipeg.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs’ wingers chat on the bench, Matt Frattin is the one taking advice from Phil Kessel on where to find openings to score.

“He’ll say ‘Hey, this guy’s dropping on you quick, try to put it upstairs,’” Frattin explained. “Little things like that.

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“But you look at his goals, he shoots anywhere. He shoots high glove, high blocker. He’ll shoot five-hole. That’s good. You have to have different options when you shoot or goalies are going to be cheating. It makes them second guess themselves.”

Kessel may be well off his normal 30-goal pace this season, but what has blown up into a huge story outside the dressing room isn’t one inside it.

His coaches and teammates look at the way he has played and the chances he has generated – Kessel sits second in the NHL in shots on goal with 46, a 4.18-per-game rate that is high by even his standards – and shrug over the low goal total.

“We knew it was only a matter of time,” said Tyler Bozak, Kessel’s centre and closest friend on the team. “I’m probably happier than him because I don’t have to get asked every day why he’s not scoring yet.”

“Everybody was just happy he finally got one,” Frattin added. “He’s been shooting a lot and hitting pipes and hitting shoulders. That was a great shot. A timely, huge goal.”

What is brewing as a much bigger story in Toronto, however, is what happens with Kessel’s contract situation and if he remains with the team long term.

The five-year deal he signed when he originally landed with the Leafs in former GM Brian Burke’s infamous trade with the Boston Bruins is set to expire on July 1, 2014, meaning Kessel can sign an extension in less than five months.

It is also believed that while Leafs GM Dave Nonis isn’t offering his top sniper around the league, he is willing to listen to offers, rumours that will only increase should Toronto fall out of the playoff race before the trade deadline in early April.

Kessel’s agent, Wade Arnott, said Friday it was “too early” to begin the discussion about potentially re-signing in Toronto.

“The season is just 11 games old,” Arnott said. “I know Phil is only focusing on the next game. We’ll see what the off-season brings, but I know he enjoys playing for the Leafs and living in a hockey market.”

There’s a difficult decision to be made on both sides here, too.

Kessel must determine whether he wants to play for a Toronto team that may still be rebuilding another two seasons or more before it realistically can be considered a contender.

And Nonis will need to weigh whether he wants to commit to a big-money deal for a one-way scorer into his early 30s or attempt to pull off a deal for a younger player.

The encouraging sign so far in Toronto is that there haven’t been any issues between coach Randy Carlyle and Kessel, who has butted heads with hard-nosed coaches in the past over his defensive deficiencies.

Instead, Carlyle has increased Kessel’s ice time more than ever, giving him an average of 21 minutes this season after he consistently received between 19 or 20 his first three seasons as a Leaf.

As of Friday, Kessel had logged more minutes than all but five other forwards in the league, which explains in part why he has looked gassed at times late in games.

“We think he’s played some of his best two-way hockey in the first 11 games this season,” Nonis said. “And he’s been generating a lot of chances despite not getting goals, so we’re happy.

“There’s always going to be that relationship with a coach like Randy and a player like Phil, though. He’s pushing him, but I think he’s reacted the right way.”

Where Kessel continues to remain a little at odds with his role is in the unrelenting media spotlight that comes with being a star, struggling or not, in Toronto.

Kessel has spoken publicly only once in recent memory and that rare appearance was an uncomfortable minute and a half after netting the winning goal in a 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

“I love playing here,” he said quietly at one point.

His reluctance to talk isn’t really an issue for the team, however, especially if he continues to remain popular with his coach and teammates and finds a way to convert his customary 11 per cent of his shots into goals.

“He’s always around the team,” Frattin said. “He likes going out to eat, and he’s a guy with a good sense of humour. Sure, he’s a little quieter, but if you get him going a little bit, he definitely livens up.”

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