Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Dawning of a Super Star

Phil Kessel, as noted below, has been named NHL player of the week. An award, frankly, he could have won a few times already this year. My oh my, what a difference a year makes. For the first couple years of Kess's career, he was dogged by complaints and worries that he "can't finish" and "isn't tough enough". And yes, I was among the most out-spoken on both counts (especially the physicality part). And I was far from alone. Seemed like every person I talked to had the same opinion of his game. Too much sizzle, not enough steak. We all knew he had great speed and skill. We all just wondered if we'd ever get to see it used to it's full potential. Well, we're surely seeing it in all it's glory now. Much of the credit for for Kessel's success this season has, rightfully, been given to Claude Julien. It was Julien's brave, but risky, decision to bench Kess in the playoffs last year that seems to have sparked Phil to reach his potential. But let's not lose sight of the fact that it was Kess himself who took that message to heart and did something about it. Many young players would have been upset and pouted about. Phil was clearly upset about it, but he had the fortitude to go out and prove to Julien, and everyone else, that he DESERVED to be on the ice. Instead of sulking, he sucked it up, and nearly single handedly carried the Bruins to a first round upset. Of course the nay sayers will argue that if he had played that way from game one, the B's would have won it. But there is nothing we, or he, can do about that now. He played like a man on a mission after being reinserted into the line-up. Key word in that sentence perhaps? "MAN". Kessel, even at just 21 years old, has officially become a "man" on the ice. No longer is he that skilled, but soft kid he was when he got here. We should have known, after being diagnosed with Testicular Cancer his rookie year, and only missing 11 games that he was "tough". But the fear was, after he returned that he would have a ""just happy to be here" attitude. And he did appear to, which is completely understandable. Anyone, especially a 19 year old kid, that goes through that must think of hockey as a "bonus" at that point. You know, perspective and all that. But since Julien got his attention, all that seems to be far in the rear view mirror. My biggest concern coming into the season was, "will Kessel remember the benching and play the same as he did after it?". Boy, does that seem like misplaced worry now. To nobody;s credit but his own, Phil has come out flying this year. Everything about him seems.....different somehow. He's using his speed with a purpose now. No longer is he just flying up the wing blindly with no plan. Now he's using his speed to beat defenders one on one, or to back them off and open seems for his line mates. He's shown no hesitation at all in going to the "dirty area's". He attacks the net as well as anyone in the game right now. His wrist shot is nasty. Easily one of the quickest releases in the NHL. But it's his willingness to take and give hits that has impressed me the most. Nobody has ever wanted or expected him to be the next Cam Neely (or Milan Lucic for that matter), throwing his body around and burying people. But he's finally developed just enough of an "edge" to compete for pucks. No more do you see him just cruise by a scrum along the boards and fishing his stick in there. Now he gets fully engaged in the physical battle for the puck. He's also learned that sometimes you have to be willing to hold onto the puck for that extra split second to make a play. In doing so, you're going to get hit. I don't see any fear in him in those cases anymore. In fact, I don't see any fear in any part of his game now. His exchange with Boris Valabik the other night is just another example of him standing up for himself and not backing down. We've seen it all year. Be it with Koivu or a monster like Valabik, Kess will not be intimidated. As the Bruins top scorer, he sometimes has a target on his back and takes a few questionable hits as a result. Not once have I seen him flop, dive or exaggerate the hit to draw a call. He just gets up and gets back in the play (usually while having a few choice words for the offender and/or the ref). His whole demeanor this year is that of an older, veteran player. Hell, he even looks like he may be able to grow a real beard if he wanted to this year! Of all the feel-good stories coming out of this Bruins season, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one than Phil Kessel. Nobody has overcome more questions and doubts than he has. His very manhood and courage were questioned by many. No more. Best of all, he's done it all with more a major dose of humility. No "I told you so" moments. No "I always knew I was this good" type comments. He constantly credits his teammates for his success. But make no mistake, Julien and his teammates may have prodded him, but he's done all this on his own. Phil Kessel, once the bright eyed, smiling, shy kid is now Phil Kessel the bright eyed,smiling shy MAN for the Bruins. Go B's, go Kess-Kynch

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