BOSTON (CBS) — As the Toronto Maple Leafs prepare to make their way to Boston for a first-round playoff series against the Bruins, the spotlight is focused squarely on Phil Kessel. But the 25-year-old Leafs star is apparently hoping to stay out of it.
On Monday afternoon, many media members (as many as 30 or 40, according to the National Post) waited patiently around Kessel’s locker for the forward to get out of a team meeting. When Kessel did get out of that meeting, he walked right past the assembled media scrum and opted not to speak.
A member of the Leafs public relations team told the assembled media, “We tried. He declined.”
Kessel, of course, figures to garner a lot of attention this week and next, as he will seemingly forever be tied to the Bruins, the team which drafted him fifth overall in 2006 but then traded him to Toronto in 2009. In return, the Bruins received draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, which spawned the “Thank you, Kessel” chants that have resounded at the TD Garden for the past few years.
Kessel’s never been one to enjoy speaking publicly, emphasized by his attempt to dodge an interview while he was on a stage and the emcee invited him to talk at least five times before finally acknowledging the request.
On Monday, Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis was told of Kessel’s decision to skip talking to the media, and he said that it won’t continue.
“Well, that’s the first I’ve heard of it, and I walked in here 30 seconds ago. … We’ll deal with that internally,” Nonis told reporters. “Our players will be available on a going-forward basis.”
Nonis was then asked what he expects out of Kessel, who led the team in goals and assists this season, in the series against Boston. He was quick to stress that the series isn’t about Kessel versus Boston.
“I expect him to play as hard as he can, just like I expect every other player,” Nonis said. “This isn’t about — and I know it’s going to be made out to be — Phil against Boston or about Phil against [Zdeno] Chara. That’s not the way that playoff series are played. It’s going to be team against team. He’s a big part of our team. I know he’s probably excited about trying to go there and play as hard as he can. He’s had a good season for us and we expect that to continue.”
Finding success against his former team has been a struggle for Kessel. In 22 games against Boston, he has just nine points, zero even-strength goals and a minus-22 rating. Much of that has to do with the work of Chara, who’s been employed by Bruins coach Claude Julien to shut down Kessel’s production.
But as long as Kessel continues to have a hard time producing in a hostile environment like Boston, and as long as he tries to dodge the attention over in Toronto, questions will continue about whether he can handle stepping up in big moments. (Look no further than this Toronto Star column by Rosie DiManno, who says she understands Kessel’s bashfulness and “excruciating” discomfort in speaking to the media … but simultaneously cites NHL rules which state the player must speak to the media and mentions the possibility of fines being imposed. It’s a tough crowd in Toronto.)
At least one of Kessel’s teammates thinks the attention may actually have a positive effect on Kessel.
“I think it fuels a fire a little bit for Phil,” said Nazem Kadri, who finished second on the team in points. “I know he wants to have a big series. … I know he really wants to have a statement series.”
Whether or not Kessel decides to speak before making that statement remains to be seen, but regardless, it’s what he does — or doesn’t do — on the ice that will be the only thing that really matters.