Steve Spott hasn't been behind the Toronto Maple Leafs bench for even one game yet and his relationship with star player Phil Kessel is already the subject of an article in the Toronto Star.
On Wednesday, the Star's Dave Feschuk wrote about Spott working with Kessel on a new defensive zone breakout strategy where he wanted the winger to come across the blueline to force the defenseman back, instead of staying on his own side of the ice. Spott was talking about the exchange he had with the Leafs' top player to a group of minor hockey coaches who were attending a coach's clinic where Spott was a guest.
Some of those minor hockey coaches told Feschuk about Spott's anecdotes - and how Kessel didn't agree with Spott's play design.
“Spotter said that when he went to Phil (with the breakout play), Phil said, I’m not doing it,” said one of the attendees, a former professional player.
Said another: “Spott was saying (that) these are the things I’ve got to deal with now that I’ve never had to deal with. In the AHL (where Spott coached last season with the Toronto Marlies), when you’re the coach what you say goes. Whereas now that I’m here (in the NHL), I’ve got a guy telling me: No. I’m not going to do that.”
According to the article, Spott then told Leafs coach Randy Carlyle about the difficulty he had working on the strategy with Kessel.
“Spott said Carlyle’s attitude was that we’re fired before (Kessel is) out of here, the hierarchy doesn’t want to deal with Phil. He scores 30 (goals) a year and that’s all they want,” said one of the attendees. “(Spott said) Phil hates coaches. He hates Randy. He hates me and I don’t even know him yet.”
The thing is, I don't believe there's anything sinister here. One of the minor hockey coaches in attendance said Spott's words about Kessel hating coaches was "tongue in cheek." Another said he was "shocked" that Spott was so candid. But that doesn't mean the Leafs' assistant coach was talking out of frustration or that he was suggesting Kessel was a coach killer per se - wouldn't you be shocked to hear an NHL coach talk about this kind of thing at a coach conference, even if it was tongue in cheek?
The fact is, Spott's comments are going to be watched closer than ever before, especially when he speaks about the best player from the NHL's biggest hockey market, and he's probably still got to get used to that truth. This isn't the OHL's Kitchener Rangers or even the AHL's Marlies. This is the show, and this is Toronto, a market that seems content to take runs at its best players and biggest personalities.
Just last year Feschuk wrote about why the Maple Leafs should trade Kessel, despite all the assets they gave up to get him and that he's easily the team's best offensive player. This isn't anything new in how Toronto treats its stars - and it's a big reason why none of its major sports franchises has won anything in more than two decades.
You're telling me a star player in today's league isn't going to be dictated to? This isn't anything new or unique to Kessel or Spott or the Maple Leafs.
The funny thing is, while some will surely make a big deal out of this and use it to put down Kessel's character or his dedication to winning, the article later spells out that the coach and player eventually came to a compromise on what Kessel would do in this breakout situation. Feschuk's article also mentioned that Spott was complimentary of Kessel, calling him one of the smartest hockey players he's worked with. So what exactly is wrong with this whole situation?
More from The Star:
As for the breakout play, Spott said in his presentation that he and Kessel ultimately reached a compromise. According to attendees, Spott explained his original strategy like so. With the Leafs moving the puck out of their zone up the left boards, the scheme called for Kessel, the right winger, to speed across the blueline toward the left wing — thus pushing back the opposing defenceman who, in previous seasons, has too often stymied the Toronto breakout by keeping the puck in. Spott told the clinic that Kessel didn’t like the idea; the player prefers the strategy of staying closer to the right wing awaiting the kind of cross-ice pass that would put him in a foot race with the opposing team’s left defenceman.
“(Kessel) originally said no, and then he said he’d meet Spott halfway and come to the middle, but that he wouldn’t go all the way across like Spott originally wanted. But it’s Phil’s show,” said one of the minor-hockey coaches who was in attendance.
Said another: “At the end of the day (Spott) was just being truthful, I think. There has to be compromise with today’s athlete, especially today’s star. You’ve got to coddle these guys.”
There's nothing earth-shattering about that last quote. It's for that reason the John Tortorella or Mike Kennan-type approach doesn't really work with most star players in today's league. It's probably why Carlyle enters this season a lame duck coach.
This isn't a problem with Kessel or with the Leafs. It's simply a glimpse behind the curtain and into the reality of how some star players need to be coached in the modern NHL. Kessel is not the problem with this team - the makeup of the rest of the roster is.
Hopefully not too many Leaf fans will use this as reason to pile on Kessel and challenge his character or question his fit and future with the team. Love your star players, Toronto. You need them.