Is Maple Leafs' Phil Kessel a coach-killer?

A former NHLer was asked on Tuesday if he was surprised that Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle got the axe.

“Yes and no,” he said.

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“Although there are a couple of guys on that team that I’d like to kick right in the (jewels).”

The dude didn’t mention any names, but you don’t have to be Anatoli Tarasov to know one of the players he was talking about.

Phil Kessel has been described in many ways — explosive, a goal-scoring machine, exciting, shy, defensively disinterested — but on Tuesday at the MasterCard Centre, during Leafs practice, he was described in a new way ... many times in fact. The term used was “coach-killer”.

Of course, it’s not entirely Kessel’s fault that Carlyle, who won a Stanley Cup behind the bench with Anaheim in 2007, was fired. But he’s the biggest reason. He’s the star player who doesn’t always play like a star player.

A few weeks ago during a Leafs telecast, hockey analyst Nick Kypreos said something along the lines that, what do you think Kessel’s teammates are thinking when they see the team’s best player lollygagging? And that’s what Kessel does too often. He lolly gags, mostly in his own end, but frequently in the neutral zone and on the forecheck as well.

Kessel isn’t paid to check, but his indifference at times is so apparent, that it’s actually comical. There was a game a few weeks back when a couple of wags in the Air Canada Centre press box made it a point to watch only Kessel when his line was on the ice. The result was fits of laughter and incredulousness at Kessel’s disinterest in checking or recovering the puck.

Coaches always say, the key to success is when your best player is also your hardest worker. Unfortunately for Randy Carlyle, it was sort of the opposite. When Kessel is on, he’s dynamite, a goal-scorer and play-maker that any coach in the NHL would love to have on his team. But far too often he takes shifts off and drags the team down with him. He’s not the only problem on the Leafs roster. There are games when the talented Nazem Kadri doesn’t bother to play at both ends of the ice (although he has been more consistent this season), or makes ridiculous turnovers (which drove ex-coach Ron Wilson nuts). There are games when Dion Phaneuf wanders around like a lost child in the Black Forest, resulting in goal-scoring chances for the opposition. Sometimes Jake Gardiner looks like a future star, other games like the king of Moss Park shinny. This is a team full of holes, but the biggest problem, and the main reason why the Leafs have been playing poorly of late, is the fact that their superstar forward and his linemates take far too many shifts off. The Kessel-Tyler Bozak-James van Riemsdyk line is far too often stuck in their own end, half-assedly chasing the puck for an entire shift. Either they’re just not interested enough in recovering the puck, or they haven’t paid attention in practice. As a group, it is a minus-17, despite being the Leafs’ top three goal scorers. Plus/minus is a stat that has been besmirched in recent years, but it can’t be completely ignored either. If your best player and highest earner is taking shifts off, it’s bound to rub off on the other guys.

Still, at the end of the day, it was Carlyle’s job to get the players to buy into team defence and to play hard every game and every shift. And he failed to do that. Especially with Kessel. The Leafs’ dreadful defensive zone coverage from a season ago has hardly improved this year, despite the legion of analytics gurus who were brought in to help fix the problem. It seems analytics guys are great at pointing out what players do wrong, but not great at getting the players to do things right. At least that has been the case so far in Toronto.

The writing was on the wall for Carlyle at training camp when he admitted that, when it comes to Kessel, there is a double-standard in terms of how much rope you give him.

“Talented people have to have some freedom to take their artistic values and go paint the picture. He is that type of player,” Carlyle said. Far too often this season, the picture Kessel has painted has been of a guy going through the motions.

Kessel was put on the defensive after practice on Tuesday. The Madison, Wis., native said that Carlyle was a great coach and it wasn’t his fault the Leafs have been so inconsistent. But when asked by Toronto Star reporter Dave Feschuk if he thought he was a difficult player to coach, Kessel got a little hot under the collar.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “That’s a weird question for you to ask ... You think it’s my fault? Is that what you’re saying? Is that what you’re saying? Is that what you’re saying? I don’t think so. I play.”

Walking away, Kessel went on about the reporter disrespecting players.

“This guy’s such an idiot here,” he said. “He’s always been like this here.”

A bit of a rant for sure. On the other hand, it was probably the best defence Kessel has exhibited all season.


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