Kessel sucks! (In small sample sizes against great players)


Hey guys! I don't know if anyone's ever mentioned this, but it turns out that Phil Kessel hasn't been all that good against the Bruins! He just has three goals, six assists, and a -22 in 22 games LOLOLOLOLOLOL!

Hm, that isn't insightful enough analysis to earn the money Victor Carneiro generously donated? Maybe I need to ask Kessel's teammates to get the real scoop...

OK, let's dig a little deeper. Here's what the Leafs did with Kessel on the ice at even strength over those 22 games:

Even strength vs Bruins Kessel on ice Kessel off ice
Goal differential -20 -3
Shooting percentage 2.9% (4.2% by Kessel) 8.7%
Save percentage 89.0% 91.8%
Fenwick percentage 43.8% 45.7%
Corsi percentage 44.4% 45.5%

OK, it's fair to make frowny faces at Kessel for only shooting 4.2%. But you know, the difference between that and his career average is two goals, so...whatever. This is how small samples work.

If we're going to ask Kessel's teammates something, instead of asking why Phil's shots aren't going in, maybe we should ask why they're only shooting 2.1% when he's on the ice. The average shot distance doesn't get any farther when he's out there, so it's probably not an issue of his playmaking. And unless we think he's playing so little defense that it's like being on the penalty kill, the low save percentage probably isn't his fault either.

It's fun to imply that this is all Kessel's shortcoming. "They're in his head" is an easy narrative to write. But it seems like supporting that narrative requires blaming him for spreading his psychological shortcomings to the rest of his team -- but only in a temporary way. When he goes back to the bench, his teammates presumably forget all their Bruin-related anxieties, at least until his next shift.

Maybe it's just me, but that doesn't strike me as the most likely explanation. I tend not to trust goal-based metrics precisely because of how much they vary, and looking at goals scored in just a certain player's shifts in a handful of games seems insane -- at least if your goal is to understand what's going on. If your goal is just to generate controversy and impactful narratives, then maybe that's the way to go.

But if we move away from the goal-based data, the shot data doesn't look so great for Kessel either. For the four year period, when Kessel was on the ice the Leafs got 49.5% of the shot attempts overall, but only 44.4% against Boston. Some of that is because Boston's a tough opponent, but they seem particularly tough on Kessel -- the Leafs did better with Kessel on the ice against all other opponents (50% to 48.5%) but worse with him on the ice against the Bruins.

So what gives? Could there be an explanation for why the Bruins do particularly well when Kessel's on the ice? Maybe, I don't know, the Bruins tend to use certain players a lot in those minutes?

The Bruins happen to have arguably the best two-way forward and defenseman in the game, two guys who drive play extremely well. Over the four years that Kessel has been a Leaf, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara have shadowed Kessel around the ice; Chara has been on the ice for 202 of Kessel's 322 minutes. Here's how that turned out:

Leafs Bruins Toronto Corsi% Minutes played
Kessel Chara and Bergeron 37.1% 74
No Kessel Chara and Bergeron 47.2% 52
Kessel Chara, no Bergeron 45.5% 128
No Kessel Chara, no Bergeron 42.1% 129
Kessel Bergeron, no Chara 59.4% 40
No Kessel Bergeron, no Chara 34.1% 108
Kessel No Chara or Bergeron 55.2% 88
No Kessel No Chara or Bergeron 47.3% 332

At these sample sizes -- the equivalent of two or three games -- the numbers very likely don't mean much. But what we see here is that Kessel has done great when Chara was off the ice, and has done better than the rest of his team when facing just Chara.

It's only in the 74 minutes against both Chara and Bergeron where Kessel really got clobbered, so if the media are going to insist on looking for reasons things haven't gone his way, they should focus less on his fear of Boston and more on what Chara and Bergeron might be doing to limit him.

Asking questions about whether the Leafs will try to avoid this matchup would be interesting. Since Kessel did fine against each of them individually but poorly against them as a pair, someone looking for explanations (besides the unsatisfying but likely accurate sample size concern) might wonder whether they do something differently when on the ice together, and whether they've had similar success when shadowing other players similar to Kessel.

But for some reason, much of the media doesn't bother doing any of these things. And just laughing at Kessel's -22 without noting how much of that is due to his teammates' poor shooting, his teammates' poor goaltending, and the premium competition he faced seems awfully misleading, if not downright disingenuous.

P.S. This was my contribution to PPP's charity drive, but I also have one of my own. Since the Flyers' season is over, my blogging services are for sale, and if you donate enough, I'll try not to crap on your team any more than they deserve. is a fan community that allows members to post their own thoughts and opinions on the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey in general. These views and thoughts may not be shared by the editor of