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Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel skates during the warm up before the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens in National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel skates during the warm up before the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens in National Hockey League action Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Mirtle: Kessel needs a hand to push Leafs to greater heights Add to ...

Phil Kessel had an enormous grin on his face, as if he had just heard a funny joke – or received a $64-million novelty cheque.

But when he was introduced to a room stuffed with media at the Bell Centre, his first move was to interrupt the Toronto Maple Leafs staffer’s call for questions and offer a few words of his own.

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“I’d like to say something first,” Kessel said. “I’d just like to thank the Toronto Maple Leafs, the owners, management, staff… for showing their support and faith in me and I’m really excited to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for the next eight years.”

It wasn’t anything that will make headlines. But it was yet another sign that the quiet, shy kid from Madison, Wis., is feeling more comfortable in his skin of late, something everyone around the team has noticed the last six months or so.

On the day Kessel signed his massive eight-year extension – complete with no-movement and no-trade clauses that will mean it’s up to him if he ever leaves Toronto – the conversation was all about what he had slowly developed into in his first four years as a Leaf.

“His game’s come a long way since I’ve been here,” linemate Joffrey Lupul mused. “I’ve seen him evolve as a player and a person, and I think it’s nothing but good news for us having him locked up long term.”

“We told Phil a long time ago, when I first came here, that he couldn’t remain a one-dimensional player,” added coach Randy Carlyle.

“[He was] strictly I would say a rush player. We’ve asked him to change his game, and to adapt his game, to be more of a cycle player at times, more board work along the wall, all those things. Those are things that to me are showing the growth of a young player.”

The reality, of course, is that Kessel will never win a Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward.

His gifts are rather obvious: He scores more goals than almost everyone in the league, with a flick of a wrist that has been outdone by only Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry in turning on more red lights leaguewide in the last three seasons.

But it’s been his evolution on and off the ice that has most won over the skeptics in the organization, convincing them to make Kessel the face of their franchise in an era when almost no stars are making it to free agency.

Leafs GM Dave Nonis knew the cost would be steep, but it was a price he felt much more comfortable paying after Kessel had a dominant second half of last season (16 goals and 36 points in the final 26 games, a 50-goal pace over more than half the abbreviated year) and a strong showing against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

The organization hopes that’s a sign of the future and that Kessel – who turns just 26 on Tuesday – can continue to be more than many ever expected.

“If he wants to continue working on his conditioning and all those things that have improved over the last three or four years, Phil should continue to improve,” Nonis said, responding to a question about Kessel’s ceiling as a player. “He should get better. There is pressure that comes with eight years and the kind of money he’s getting and he understands that. He’s a pretty confident guy.”

“I think you always have to improve your game in this league,” Kessel said. “You have to always try and grow as a player and adjust your game.”

The reality of the contract is that it is actually one of the easier decisions Nonis was facing. More difficult will be whether or not to give captain Dion Phaneuf the $6.5-million plus a season he wants, upgrading at centre by somehow replacing Kessel’s BFF Tyler Bozak and using the rising cap as a way to bring in more top end talent that can play a great two-way game.

At the moment, for all his faults, Kessel is undoubtedly this franchise’s best player. Whether or not the Leafs can contend with him as a 1A or they’ll need him to be 1B or 1C like Patrick Kane in Chicago is fine fodder for debate, but improving without him would have been infinitely more difficult.

But in order to get where new MLSE president Tim Leiweke is aiming – i.e. that long-awaited parade – the question isn’t whether or not Kessel can improve enough to lead them.

It’s whether or not the group around him can surprise and excel to the degree he already has.

“I want to finish my career here,” Kessel said at one point.

“Obviously you want to win. It would be a great city to win in, and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen. I think we’ve got a lot of great pieces on our team.”

@mirtle

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