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(Claus Andersen/2011 Getty Images)
(Claus Andersen/2011 Getty Images)

Kessel gets his wish: Better linemates Add to ...

A lot of what Phil Kessel had to say on Sunday was so typically cryptic that it invited interpretation.

And interpretation when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs can often invite trouble.

But what is crystal clear from Kessel's frustration - and general manager Brian Burke's subsequent comments during tonight's game - is that everyone involved is well aware he's been playing with substandard talent much of the year, a major contributing factor to the fact he's on pace for less than 55 points and a big-time minus figure in the plus-minus column.

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"We might not have all of the pieces on the chessboard," Burke huffed in the first intermission when asked if Kessel needs to play with other offensively talented players.

Which isn't exactly a revelation.

Kessel's most common linemates at even strength this season have been Tyler Bozak as his centre and either Joey Crabb, Kris Versteeg or Nazem Kadri as his left winger, and all four have struggled in that situation.

Even Versteeg, who has come alive playing in more of utility role, was ineffective alongside Kessel, while the Leafs' de facto top line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin all racked up career highs after only 50 games.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson finally went to the extreme measure of disassembling that trio in tonight's 5-4 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, a mess of a game that Toronto controlled for much of the final 40 minutes. Over those final two periods, Kessel skated almost exclusively with Grabovski and Kulemin, both of whom scored, and finished plus-2. (Only the third time Kessel's managed that this season.)

"I was finally plus in a game," Kessel said. "I felt pretty good. I had some chances."

As Wilson noted recently as part of his ongoing Obscure Stats Watch, the Leafs had a 16-8-3 record when Kessel was even or better in the plus-minus category before tonight. And what the coach didn't mention is that Toronto was 8-0-0 when he's a plus player, which improved to 9-0-0 after tonight.

(Yes, incredibly, Kessel had only been a plus eight times in his first 52 games.)

Plus-minus has its weaknesses as a measuring tool, there's no doubt, but with Kessel, what Wilson's trying to do is start to point that needle in the other direction. Given how well things have gone for Grabovski and Kulemin all season, having some of that rub off on Kessel appears to be the coach's current plan.

"I watched every goal he scored in Boston and he usually did it playing with two lefties," Wilson said of Kessel's shift to play with two left-handed shots. "[Marc]Savard and Milan Lucic. So if there's two people on our team similar [in Grabovski and Kulemin]and give Phil a chance with lefties on the ice. I thought Bozak would be perfect for Clarke MacArthur, a righty passing to a lefty, and everything kind of worked out."

"I thought we had some chances out there," Kessel said. "I think we got a couple of goals and we'll see how it goes."

Wilson didn't elaborate when precisely he had done his Kessel research, but it's likely it came recently given Kessel hasn't scored in his past 11 games. That the shift to playing with two of the Leafs' most productive players came a day after Kessel's controversial comments may have been a coincidence, but it didn't feel that way after the game given how surprised all involved were with the last minute changes.

"It was a little bit [strange]" MacArthur said of playing with two different linemates. "It was a change. But it was a positive thing. It's good to shuffle things around a little bit and, you know, get guys in different positions and stuff like that. It worked out tonight."

Whether or not Wilson's new lines hold remains to be seen, as the Leafs coach is notorious for using all sorts of combinations on a game-by-game basis. That Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur were kept together so long - essentially from training camp - should perhaps be the biggest surprise.

Whatever the case, Kessel had a far better supporting cast in this game, MacArthur made things happen with Bozak and Colby Armstrong, and secondary scoring wasn't an issue for the Leafs for a night as they put five past netminder Ondrej Pavelec.

Kessel, meanwhile, seemed relieved to put the past two days behind him.

"I didn't say anything bad," he said. "Like everyone thought I did. So I didn't think it was that big of a deal.

"My thing isn't [talking to the media] I'm more quiet, you know, I guess."

Even so, speaking up seemed to spark a little something in the Leafs, for one night anyway. Kessel was better, Wilson shuffled the lines in a way that worked and Toronto won - albeit against a troubled Atlanta team that has hardly put up any Ws of late.

A little controversy isn't always a bad thing.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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