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Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) during the warm up prior to a game against the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE (US PRESSWIRE/John E. Sokolowski)
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) during the warm up prior to a game against the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE (US PRESSWIRE/John E. Sokolowski)

Leafs Beat

Why the Leafs have squandered Phil Kessel's goal-scoring exploits Add to ...

His next goal will be his 100th in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform, tying him with Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks for the eighth highest total in the NHL over the past three seasons.

And with his career high 37th in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday, Phil Kessel kept alive an outside shot at becoming just the 13th player to hit 40 goals in that span.

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“I’ve had my chances this year to get it,” Kessel said. “With three games left, it’ll be tough.”

Even without hitting 40, Kessel has certainly lived up to his billing as a goal scorer in Toronto, even if he will never live up to the ridiculously high price Leafs general manager Brian Burke paid for him in September of 2009.

Playing without a quality centre three years running, he has outscored such snipers as Rick Nash, Dany Heatley, Jonathan Toews and Alex Semin while making a reasonable $5.4-million (U.S.) a season.

While his goal Saturday was just Kessel’s fifth under Randy Carlyle after 15 games, his season total was enough to impress his new bench boss.

“The thing you should look at is how many 37-goal scorers are there in the league?” Carlyle asked. “I guarantee there’s not a lot … 37-goal scorers are not easy to find.”

No, they’re not. And even with some warts, they’re plenty in demand.

Kessel’s warts are pretty obvious, as he’ll never be a candidate for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward – or likely anything close.

He is your prototypical one-dimensional scorer, with an incredible ability to pull off an individual effort – just as he did on Saturday in picking up a pass behind the Sabres net, spinning in front and beating the hottest goalie in the league down low.

Kessel knows how to find the back of the net, and that’s a unique quality for which teams will pay untold sums.

“He’s got a skill set that separates him from a lot of people in the league,” Carlyle said. “He can score goals, and he can make something out of nothing. He’s a dangerous player every time he’s on the ice.”

The trouble in Toronto is he has often been one of the few players in that category during his time here. With just two years left on Kessel’s contract, the Leafs still haven’t put much of a supporting cast around their sniper, leaving him to pile up goal after goal in playoff-less seasons.

Burke has failed to take advantage of Kessel’s scoring prowess, leaving him to spend the season skating alongside Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly or Matt Lombardi – a trio of players who have combined for one fewer goal than their high-profile linemate.

Toronto has, in effect, wasted his talents – and the first three years of his five-year deal – setting Kessel up for a monster payday as an unrestricted free agent come 2014.

That, more than anything, makes the trade to land him as senseless as there have been around the league of late.

“It takes 20 guys to make up a team,” Carlyle said at one point in his postgame address. “What we’re really trying to sell is a team game here.”

A few minutes later, that talk turned to Kessel, who was praised as being willing to listen to what Carlyle has tried to sell the past month.

“We’ve asked him in different situations to change what he’s been accustomed to doing,” Carlyle said, “and we haven’t had a pushback from him. He’s been very receptive in those areas.”

Improving Kessel’s defensive game is only going to take the Leafs so far. He is to a large extent what he is, and what he needs more than anything, is a big, defensively reliable centre to fight puck battles and keep the red light above Toronto’s net from going off when he’s on the ice.

Provide that and another 37-goal season may just mean something a year from now.

Fail and you’re staring down a tough decision, with a then-26-year-old Kessel going into a contract year potentially having never made the playoffs with the Leafs.

He’ll want big money, and he may just want it somewhere else.

At some point, all these goals will come with a considerable price tag, even if the Leafs haven’t found a way to make them pay off.

They always do.

Top NHL goal scorers, past three seasons*

Rk

Player

GP

G

Cap hit

1

Steven Stamkos

242

152

$7.5-mil

2

Alex Ovechkin

226

118

$9.5-mil

3

Corey Perry

240

113

$5.3-mil

4

Patrick Marleau

243

109

$6.9-mil

5

Jarome Iginla

244

107

$7.0-mil

6

Ilya Kovalchuk

231

106

$6.7-mil

7

Marian Gaborik

216

103

$7.5-mil

8

Daniel Sedin

217

100

$6.1-mil

9

Phil Kessel

231

99

$5.4-mil

10

Bobby Ryan

241

97

$5.1-mil

*- prior to Sunday’s games

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