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Phil Kessel’s former Maple Leaf teammates have been paying attention to the early woes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, primarily for trash-talk purposes.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You don't have to look much past the Toronto Maple Leafs salary hierarchy to see the impact Phil Kessel had in six years with the franchise.

Tyler Bozak, his old centre, makes $4.2-million (all currency U.S.) on a five-year deal, and more than 90 per cent of his production was with Kessel on his wing.

Joffrey Lupul landed a five-year, $5.25-million contract shortly after putting up 85 points in 94 games when he arrived in Toronto, uncertain if he could resurrect his career because of injury.

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And you can make the case that others such as Dion Phaneuf ($7-million a season) and James Reimer ($2.3-million) earned their paydays, in part, due to the fact the Leafs won many games on the strength of Kessel's timely goals.

All four would likely be making less if not for the fellow known as Phil the Thrill.

"We played in an all-star game together," Lupul said of his breakout year alongside Kessel in 2011-12. "I've got great memories of Phil."

"He's a guy I'm definitely rooting for," Bozak added.

That was the sentiment throughout the Leafs dressing room this week, as players spent five days of practice working up to a matchup with their old friend on Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Kessel was traded to the Penguins in a controversial deal on July 1 after Leafs management determined he was part of a dysfunctional team culture that led to a 27th-place finish last season in Toronto. His exit was essentially the only high-profile subtraction, and in return the Leafs received two prospects and a high draft pick.

The Kessel era was a difficult one for the Leafs, with only one playoff berth and multiple finishes in the NHL's basement. But he ultimately lived up to his billing as a top goal scorer and undeniably elevated the play of those he skated with, often turning routine passes into goals through remarkable individual efforts.

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All told, Kessel scored 181 goals in 446 games over his six seasons in Toronto, making him only the sixth Leaf in franchise history to produce that much that consistently in that span. (The others: Mats Sundin, Rick Vaive, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Frank Mahovlich.)

Leaguewide, only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Rick Nash scored more goals than Kessel in his time in Toronto, and he did it with a much weaker supporting cast.

But the Penguins have struggled early this season. Their 2-0 win over Ottawa on Thursday was their first of the season, and their supposed high-powered offence has produced a total of five goals in four games.

Kessel, meanwhile, has only two points, including one laser-beam wrist-shot goal in a loss to Arizona that looked all too familiar to Leafs fans.

He has been playing 20 minutes a game – almost exclusively on the top line with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz – and on a first power-play unit that has yet to click (zero for 12).

Kessel's former teammates have been paying attention to the Penguins' early woes.

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Mostly for trash-talk purposes.

"I don't think he's going to be trash talking quite yet," Lupul said on Thursday afternoon, as the Leafs prepared for a flight to Columbus for Friday's game. "I don't think they have a win yet do they? I think he has one goal."

"With him, it's always going," Morgan Rielly said of the back and forth between the Leafs and Kessel. "One way or another. We've talked to him. It's always a jab. Always something."

Both teams could use the win. Pittsburgh needs Saturday's game because expectations there are high. Adding Kessel was yet another win-now move for the Penguins, and coach Mike Johnston could land on the hot seat quickly if their record sags early.

Toronto needs it just to get on the board, especially if it loses to the Blue Jackets a night earlier. Leafs coach Mike Babcock has done a good job of keeping his team's confidence high despite an 0-2-1 start, but that will become tougher if a three-game winless streak becomes five after this weekend.

Kessel will be a focus going in. Lupul expects the Leafs will put in some work in the video room in order to watch how he fits into Pittsburgh's power play and find ways to shut him down.

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They may know his tendencies from years of playing together, the Leafs still plan to keep doing their homework on their old friend.

"We've got to try and get wins," Lupul said. "And a big part of getting a win is shutting down Phil and whoever he's playing with.

"Obviously he's a dangerous player. And I expect him to be pretty motivated for that game."

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