Two players caught my eye as I traversed Canada last week. One has managed to exceed the hype surrounding his arrival, while the other has put together a stunning start to the season with relatively little fanfare.
In the case of Phil Kessel, it is impossible to do anything quietly in Toronto. Every nuance of the Maple Leafs is covered, scrutinized and analyzed. That was true of the deal that brought him to the team in September, with GM Brian Burke sending a 2010 first- and second-round pick and a 2011 first-round pick to the Boston Bruins. It seemed like a steep price despite Kessel's status as the B's leading goal scorer with 36 last season. Compounding the anticipation, Kessel immediately inked a five-year $27 million deal with the Maple Leafs, and then had to wait until November 3 as he recovered from off-season shoulder surgery.
So, with that buildup and backdrop, Kessel joined a team that won exactly one game without him. Since his insertion into the lineup, the Leafs have rolled to a 11-7-3 record, with Kessel netting 12 goals and adding eight assists. The confluence of his coming into the lineup and the Leafs getting stronger at playing coach Ron Wilson's forceful forechecking system has been impressive. And Kessel has certainly been the catalyst. Everyone knew he could score, but as Burke offered up when I ran into him on press row in Toronto, "He makes so many good plays. Offensively, it's not just about him shooting. He makes plays that makes those around him better."
Hard to argue with the results. And Burke should know. His coveted scorer is also a strong candidate for Team USA at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. The city is ramping up for the Games and as Canucks' captain Roberto Luongo told me, "the energy is building each week." Maybe that's why the season Henrik Sedin is putting together for the Canucks has garnered such scant attention. Actually, though, Henrik has always toiled in relative anonymity.
Despite being a nearly a point-per-game producer for the past five seasons, Henrik Sedin doesn't seem to draw the accolades that other premier playmakers such as Joe Thornton or Mark Savard attract. Even fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom in Washington seems to get more praise as Alexander Ovechkin's setup man despite being only a third-year player. Maybe it is the twin factor, with Henrik's brother Daniel often the beneficiary of his deft passes and the rest of us not being able to see Henrik as a player in his own right. They came into the league as a package deal, re-signed this summer as a package deal, and thus remain dual rather than singular in the public's perception.
This year, though, Henrik carried the Canucks offensively while brother Daniel recovered from a broken ankle. Henrik scored more than usual, a byproduct of necessity with Daniel sidelined. As of this writing, Henrik is tied with Marian Gaborik for second in the NHL in scoring (42 points) and has resumed his playmaker role for Daniel, who has five goals and eight points in his last four games, scoring at least a point in each outing. Together they play a dominating two-man game down low -- the best tandem on the cycle in the game today. They pass and move with precision and control long stretches of shifts with their puck possession skills.
At the heart of it is Henrik's ability to hold the puck and pass in tight spaces. It is a special skill, but maybe too subtle for star status via highlight footage. You have to pay attention to notice Henrik Sedin's brilliance.
We all should.