Once again Phil Kessel leads the line
Much to the surprise of no one, Phil Kessel is once again our choice as the #1 Maple Leaf under the age of 25. It's a little bit of an anti-climactic ending to what has been a much more hotly debated list than the first edition, but it speaks to the quality of Phil Kessel as a player that despite the addition of a couple of significantly talented current and future Maple Leafs, Kessel easily cruises to his second consecutive placing as #1.
The hockey statistics community has examined the age at which most NHLers will reach their peak as offensive players; in general, a pattern emerges similar to a curve that travels upward from the beginning of their career to some peak season and then falls away as they age. Typically, that peak and the apex of that curve occurs when the player is somewhere between the age of 24 and 27.
So it's no surprise that at 24 years old, Phil Kessel had the best season of his career. Kessel came flying out of the gate and was the engine that drove the Maple Leaf offence all season long, scoring a career-high 37 goals and 82 points, a point per game pace that finally forced detractors to recognize Phil Kessel as one of the premier snipers in the NHL today.
With Kessel turning 25 at the start of October, this will be his last appearance in the Top 25 Under 25 series. Everything about Kessel has been scrutinized to the nth degree over the last three years, so there are really just two questions left when it comes to Kessel; what can he do for an encore, and what happens in 2014 when his contract runs out?
The odds of Kessel being able to repeat his point a game total from the last season is probably better than okay. For starters, as he's only about to turn 25 years old he's likely right in the sweet spot of his career years. Also working in his favour are the fact that 37 goals wasn't a complete outlier from the rest of his career (Kessel has previously scored 36, and has 30+ goals in each of his last 4 seasons), and his shooting percentage (12.5%) wasn't off the charts high like Nikolai Kulemin's from two years ago. Kessel should probably come close to the 37 goals (or that pace anyway, since we're not likely getting a full season); 80 points or more might depend slightly on whether his linemate Joffrey Lupul can somehow continue to score at the same rate as he did last year (a dicier proposition).
The other question relates to Kessel's contract status, and is more important. With two years left on the deal he signed upon being acquired by the Maple Leafs, it's still a little early to be fretting about a contract extension; under the current CBA rules, he's not even able to sign a contract extension until next offseason at the earliest. But with constant scrutiny about his perceived shortcomings (that generally ignore general truths about similar players in the NHL) and constant comparisons to Tyler Seguin (that aren't even remotely fair to Kessel since he has zero control over who he gets traded for and what they do with their careers), if the Leafs continue to suck out loud, would Phil Kessel re-sign in Toronto? I don't know if I would panic about this question yet, but it's concerning.
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Once again, Kessel is a unanimous choice for the top spot on our list.