Wednesday February 11th, 2015

Off The Draw

Effortless is the aloha of hockey, a word that can have two very different meanings depending on the context.

It’s a word that, for instance, perfectly captured the natural grace of Scott Niedermayer’s skating stride.

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But it can also mean something else entirely.

“The whole give-a-s--- meter has to be higher,” Maple Leafs coach Peter Horachek lamented in the wake of Toronto’s 5–4 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night. His candid response was in reference to the lackluster performance of his entire team, but he could just as well have been talking about the epic indifference of Phil Kessel.

The game was raw meat for Kessel’s critics, a showcase for all of his worst attributes. In the 12:57 he played—a new low since he came to the Leafs in a September 2009 trade with the Bruins—he was scarcely more than an empty sweater, satisfied with floating around the perimeter of plays rather than being actively involved in them.

Kessel wasn’t the only Toronto player who needed to dial it up, but as the team’s star he set the tone. And despite being glued to the bench for much of the night, he somehow managed to be on the ice for four New York goals.

Say what you want about the merits of the statistic, but Kessel was full value for that –4 next to his name. He personally was culpable on the Kevin Hayes goal early in the second period that gave the Rangers a 3–1 lead, gliding into the defensive zone rather than engaging on the backcheck as New York attacked. Later in the second, Kessel offered little resistance against Rick Nash in a puck battle along the boards, leading directly to Dominic Moore’s short-handed goal.

Then, late in the third, Kessel’s half-hearted effort to take away a passing lane allowed Nash an easy feed to Mats Zuccarello alone in the high slot for the winner.

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But that kind of carelessness? That’s the nature of the player.

As a team on the verge of a rebuild, the Maple Leafs have some tough decisions ahead. Kessel’s future isn’t one of them. There’s no denying that he is a uniquely talented athlete, one of the game’s premier finishers. Skill like his can lead a team to overlook his occasional inattention to detail. But with games like the one he played on Tuesday night happening too often, it’s clear that he’s more problem than solution.

A parting of the ways is best for both parties, but with Kessel’s contract calling for $8 million per year through 2022 that’s not likely to happen before the end of the season.

That’s the tough reality facing Horachek, a man who is battling for his own future in the game. Whether he wins or loses now is almost beside the point. He just needs to prove that he can get everyone’s oars in the water and pulling in the same direction.

Maybe it’s time to send a message. If a professional effort is beyond Kessel, maybe he shouldn’t be playing at all.

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