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How much better do they need to be?

In the days following Phil Kessel's comments about the media unjustly harping on the play of Dion Phaneuf, the media has also unjustly harped on the play of Phil Kessel. Let me tell you why it's all bullshit.

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Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are the two highest paid players on the terrible Toronto Maple Leafs. They're the two best positional players on the terrible Toronto Maple Leafs. They're the two highest profile players on the terrible Toronto Maple Leafs. They're the two players whose play is least at fault for the terrible Toronto Maple Leafs...unless you're listening to the Toronto media.

On Tuesday before their game against the Florida Panthers (a game which the Leafs won 3-2 and in which Kessel and Phaneuf each recorded an assist), Kessel decided he'd heard enough of, what was in his mind, the ridiculous amounts of undue criticism of captain Dion Phaneuf by the Toronto sports media. Check out the post by elseldo for more info on that.

Not surprisingly, after getting called out by Kessel, the Toronto media turned on him as well. First came the stories about how Phil Kessel is a poor leader both on and off the ice and has dragged down the play of those around him. This "argument" about why Phil Kessel is bad was quickly rebuked as being nothing but garbage. Then came a lesson in dealing with the vengeful media, and how Kessel should learn how to properly play the media game or else face their wrath. This too was torn to shreds by literally everyone who's not an asshole.

So having had their arguments against Kessel being bad for the Leafs because of his actions off the ice and in a media scrum roundly debunked, the Toronto media turned to evaluating Kessel and Phaneuf's on-ice play. And what do you know, the first article on this by James Mirtle was fair and balanced and right on point...until Michael Grange decided to argue that it wasn't.

Oh boy. Where do we even begin to deconstruct all this inane nonsense?

How about the utter ridiculousness of holding two guys with exceptional individual play at fault for team level failure? Phil Kessel hit the nail on the head when he said that Phaneuf didn't build this team so why should he take the brunt of the blame for its failures? There are 23 players on an NHL team, no combination of 2 can carry the other 21, not matter how much money they are paid for their efforts. Gretzky and Messier were surrounding by amazing players in Edmonton. Mario and Jagr had Kevin Stevens on their line; Kessel and JVR have Tyler Bozak.

That's not to say that Kessel and Phaneuf are without their faults though. As Grange points out, Kessel certainly isn't the best two-way forward in the league, and Dion Phaneuf does have the habitat of getting walked on the outside by fast skating forwards. But every single NHLer not named Gretzky, Lidstrom, Crosby has flaws in their game, so harping on players like Kessel and Phaneuf who are exceptional NHLers for relatively minor faults is ridiculous.

Since joining the Maple Leafs in 2009, Phil Kessel ranks 5th in the NHL for goals (ahead of guys like Iginla, Marleau, Kane, Carter, and Malkin) and 15th in points (ahead of guys like Tavares, Toews, Nash, Staal, and Benn). When you score that much, as Alex Ovechkin has shown, being deficient in two-way play isn't really a big deal because you're outscoring your problems. Also, post-Carlyle, Kessel has been a plus-possession player with a 51.5 CF% at evens (he was ~46 CF% under Carlyle).

I don't know why the majority of the MSM thinks every single player needs to be Jonathan Toews, but it's beyond stupid. If your two-way game is elite (Toews, Bergeron, Kopitar), chances are you're not among the league's scoring leaders. Those two groups are basically mutually exclusive really. The only past Selke winners who ever came close to contending for the Art Ross were Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov (thanks @JorgesDouble)and Doug Gilmour. Finding a player who's the total package is an absolute rarity and expecting someone to be an all-time great just because they're paid good money is stupid.

Similarly to Kessel, Phaneuf's play since joining the Leafs has him near the top for NHL Dmen when it comes to scoring. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Phaneuf is 23rd among NHL Dmen in points per game with 0.48, while at the same time 9th in terms of TOI/G. Phaneuf is an absolute workhorse for Toronto and doing pretty well with his time. As Mirtle pointed out in his article, Phaneuf's been on the ice for more goals for than against as a Leaf.

Kessel and Phaneuf are, without a doubt, in the upper echelon of NHL players for their positions. What Grange is implying however, is that Kessel and Phaneuf need to elevate their games further to drag this terrible Toronto Maple Leafs team out of the NHL's basement. But honestly, how much better do Kessel and Phaneuf need to be? How much better could they be?

Does Kessel need to become a perennial 40+ goal scorer instead of a perennial 30+ goal scorer? The only modern day player to accomplish such a feat is Alex Ovechkin, and before that it was the early 1990s and goalies were 5'7".

Does Phaneuf need to lead the league both in points and time-on-ice? I'm sure if he just tries a little harder, he can become the next Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Leetch.

If Kessel and Phaneuf need to ascend to the levels of Godhood to play better, than asking them to play better is a ridiculous request. These guys are fantastic hockey players and to want more from them is asinine. The Leafs are a bottom 5 team in the NHL. Even if Kessel and Phaneuf become reincarnations of Bossy and Orr, what's realistically the highest the Leafs could climb? Seventh in the East?

That's the biggest problem here. Nonis has done a piss-poor job in constructing this Leafs team. Beyond its few good players are guys who are marginal NHLers at best, or at least guys playing well above where they should be simply due to lack of overall team talent at the top end. And that's Dave Nonis' fault. Not Phaneuf's and certainly not Kessel's.

So when Michael Grange says that Kessel and Phaneuf need to be held to a high standard, I shake my head because the Toronto media has no idea how to set a realistic standard when it comes to the Maple Leafs. The standard set for Kessel, Phaneuf, and the other good players is unrealistically high, and the standard set for Dave Nonis is non-existent.

I'd love to set a standard for the Toronto hockey media myself, but when the bar I set will be used for nothing but limbo competitions, what's the point?