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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

MIRTLE

Should the Leafs keep Kessel long term? Add to ...

His hair was unkempt. His blonde beard a six– or seven-day growth of apparent forgetfulness.

And his five minute media scrum began at one spot in the dressing room before ending five or six feet further back with the player pinned up against the wall.

It may only be Day 2 of training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Phil Kessel appears to be in midseason form.

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Which, if it carries over on the ice, is obviously a good sign.

In a season that ended in disaster for his team, Kessel was one of the few bright spots, as he finished tied for sixth in the league in goal scoring (37) and points (82) in a breakout year.

While Leafs coach Randy Carlyle noted on Monday that Kessel seemed “frustrated” to not to hit the 40-goal mark, entering his fourth season in Toronto, the 25-year-old sniper is much more concerned about getting Toronto in the playoffs than hitting any personal benchmarks in the shortened year.

“I had a couple bad stretches there last year,” Kessel said. “I probably should have got there [to 40]. But it doesn’t matter. It’s never good enough when you don’t make the playoffs. If I score 25 and we make it, then it doesn’t matter.”

Asked about his expectations for a 48-game season, he added: “I don’t know. Have the best year possible. Do whatever I can to help this team win.”

This is obviously going to be an interesting year for Kessel for at least three main reasons.

No. 1 will be his relationship with new coach Randy Carlyle, who is notoriously tough on players who cheat in their defensive play.

No. 2 is if Kessel can keep producing at what was far and away a career-best rate or if he settles back into the 65-point region.

And No. 3 is that this will be the second last year of the five-year contract Brian Burke signed him to back in the fall of 2009.

A great season on the ice for the Leafs and under Carlyle’s system, including a playoff berth, and you can presume the contract extensions talks will begin to start. Kessel can re-sign up to an eight-year deal beginning on July 1, less than sixth months from now, and that figures to be one of the franchise’s biggest storylines in that timeframe.

Given the paucity of free agent talent available every year and his offensive production (with as many goals as all but seven others leaguewide the last four years), Kessel would likely command a long-term deal in the $7.5-million a season range.

The flipside to the great season scenario, however, is another poor one for the team, something that you have to believe would cause Kessel to have second thoughts about staying beyond 2014.

Kessel obviously isn’t getting into all of that yet, on the second day of training camp. But the one thing he did talk about is Carlyle’s changes to the team’s playing style, which will need to be successful for them to have any shot at improving on last season.

“He told us as a team we have to be better defensively,” Kessel said. “He’s not going to take away the offensive abilities of guys, but we have to be better defensively to win hockey games.”

Carlyle, meanwhile, had a good answer to the first of what will be many Kessel questions he’ll face this year.

“The Phil Kessel situation with myself is no different than dealing with Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf,” he said. “Very elite level players. When it’s his turn to be first on the back check, or his turn to be first on the forecheck, he better be first.

“I don’t think you can not hold those players to that standard. And he knows that.”

A few more quotes from Kessel on Monday:

On being in the spotlight as a shy superstar in Toronto: “You know, the fans here are great. There’s a lot of media obviously. But I love playing here. I don’t think you guys are too bad here.”

On not being on a line with Joffrey Lupul on Day 1: “It’s camp, right? You always start trying to figure things out and there’s still a lot of time to go here to see what you have.”

On the Tyler Bozak-to-Vancouver trade rumours: “Tyler’s a good player. I don’t want him to be traded, but it’s part of hockey. Everyone gets traded sometime. If he has to go, I’ll be sad, because he’s a good friend of mine.”

On not playing in Europe during the lockout: “I just thought it was best to stay around here and try to stay as ready as I can.”

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