He spoke little all season, as one of the NHL’s true silent stars.
But in the end, Phil Kessel said quite a bit.
With most of the Tampa Bay Times Forum cleared out and his teammates waiting on the bus to head to the airport, the Toronto Maple Leafs leading scorer invited a few straggling reporters to walk beside him as he left the deserted arena.
Along the way, he offered what was basically a three-minute apology for failing to lift the Leafs into the postseason.
“Obviously, I haven’t been good enough the last 15 games,” Kessel said late Tuesday night, less than an hour after his team had been eliminated from playoff contention after a shutout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “And I need to be better.
“I’m really disappointed, and I feel like I’ve let a lot of people down that are Leafs fans. I’m pretty disappointed.”
The reality is that Kessel is probably last on the list of those deserving of blame for the Leafs lost season, tied with netminder Jonathan Bernier for that honour. Toronto had been a three or four player team for far too much of the year, asking the top line and a young goaltender to do almost everything in every game.
That it was ultimately too big of an ask shouldn’t fall on them.
Kessel nonetheless knows what he is paid to do – score goals – and also knows he didn’t do so when it mattered most. In a stretch where the Leafs won just three times in 14 games (3-11-0), he hit the back of the net only three times and added four assists, ending a career year with a whimper after some remarkable stretches in midseason that changed many in the hockey world’s opinion on his play.
The problem with blaming the one line on a one-line team is that rarely can that group ever do it all for a full season. They, like Bernier, and like captain Dion Phaneuf, needed more support, and on a team where so much cap space went to David Clarkson and enforcers and buyouts and retained salaries, there wasn’t nearly enough of that.
That Kessel and Co. were able to produce as consistently as they did into mid-March – he was, after 66 games, on pace to have one of the 10 most productive seasons since 2009-10 – was frankly remarkable considering opposing teams were coming in every night with the entire mandate being to focus on the one trio.
Even so, Kessel felt the need to fall on his sword in his own quiet way on Tuesday.
“We didn’t play well enough,” he said when asked why the Leafs fell apart the way they did. “At both ends of the rink, we didn’t play well enough. Obviously we didn’t get it done. We came back from that California trip [before the slide], we won two out of three there, and after that we never got our groove back.
“We need to be better. I’m not happy with the way this has ended here. And I don’t think anyone is… Everyone’s disappointed. I know all the players are. It’s a long year and we fought hard. We just didn’t get it done.”
With two games to play, Kessel remains tied for fifth in league scoring after matching his career high of 37 goals. In all, he has put up 80 points, a good portion of which came during a torrid 25-points-in-14-games stretch leading into the Olympics, where he was also a key factor for Team USA.
Of all the problems the Leafs have these days, a 26 year old who has as many goals as all but Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos and as many points as all but Claude Giroux over the last three seasons isn’t one of them.
One of the issues with locking in Tyler Bozak as his centre, however, is that line will struggle to outscore good teams’ top options, and the Leafs need another trio – preferably anchored by an elite centre like potential UFA Paul Stastny – to draw away the best of the best over a long season.
However the roster makeover shakes out, Kessel will be a huge part of whatever success (or failure) this organization has in the next decade. Signed for the next eight years at an $8-million cap hit that will make him the league’s ninth highest paid player next season, he remains one of the few real reasons for optimism, an ace up the Leafs sleeve that changes the entire dynamic of the lineup.
Without him, this group would be a bottom feeder, one scoring as many goals as the Florida Panthers.
The good news is, in defeat on Tuesday night, he still sounds very much like someone who wants to be part of the solution.
“I mean, we have a great group of guys,” he said, as a Leafs staffer called for him to finally get on the bus. “We all get along great. We’re all upset about this right. I think you don’t get how much time and effort we put into this – blood, sweat and tears. We’re just really disappointed the way it ended.”