Earlier today, amidst an onslaught of "how many/what if" posts, PPP posed the following question to the Leafs Nation:
How many goals can we expect from Phil Kessel in the 2011-2012 season?
The answer lies entirely in Phil's mentality. And his mentality deserves its own fan post.
At his best, there is little doubt that Kessel is capable of 40+ goals in a season. In fact, as Ron Wilson is fond of underlining, Phil scores most of his goals in relatively small clumps of games, leading to his reputation as a streaky player. Abstracting his better performances to 70+ games easily yields a 40-goal projection.
When Phil is mid-streak, he can appear untouchable, slippery and lightning quick. He is a constant threat in the offensive zone. This is our beloved Dr. Kessel. If Phil can hit these highs more often, Leafs fans muse, there is no reason why he couldn't break the 40-goal mark.
But, as every Leafs fan knows, Dr. Kessel has an evil twin, a player defined by lackadaisical performances, defensive breakdowns and sulky post-game interviews. We will call this all-too-familiar counterpart Mr. Phil.
Ultimately, then, PPP's question is rooted in a deeper inquiry about our favourite sniper's mentality, namely, how much Dr. Kessel can we expect to see this year, and how much Mr. Phil?Although it pains me to admit it, I have serious qualms about Kessel's mental strength and discipline going into this season, especially as it will manifest in his consistency.
Assuming his health, Connolly's presence alone could add maybe 5 goals to Kessel's total from last season. But that is an external reason for an improvement in Kessel's performance, and Phil will need an internal change to catapult him past the 40-goal mark.
Unfortunately, I don't see any evidence that Kessel has improved his mentality at all since last season. There is no heightened drive in his eyes when he is interviewed, no greater will to win evident from his pre-season play. He simply isn't proving himself to be a self-starter like your Grabovskis or Armstrongs, players you can count on to dig deep out of nowhere and change the tide of a game. To be honest, I think Kessel - at his low points, anyway - is a pretty shallow player.
As I see it, Phil will play better when the team is winning, and he will play his best when the Leafs have added a top 3 forward with some grit, someone who will shame him into greater consistency and engage his natural competitiveness. That is still one or two years - and one big trade - away.
I'm going to predict that Phil hits 35-37 goals this season, if Connolly plays 60+ games. If Connolly plays fewer than 60, I'll guess 32-35.
But, when we add a top 3 forward who can compete at Phil's level, he will crack 40 goals in the first 60 games of the following season without breaking a sweat. His vanity will be engaged and he will naturally become more focused, more consistent. That will be when our first line finally becomes worthy of the title.
So, for now, don't expect a great change in Kessel's output - all we can reasonably hope for on our current evidence is a slight bump in production based solely on Tim Connolly's skill-set.
In Kessel's case, when it rains, it pours. And right now I'm not even damp.