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Defending Kessel: A Statistical Look

The past few days, Phil Kessel has been called many things: enigmatic, untradeable, unreliable, uncoachable, and another plethora of adjectives that start with un-. Statistically speaking, though, Phil Kessel is not enigmatic whatsoever; but a player that is highly valued in a middle-of-the-road to lower-quality team. Whether it’s the culture that made Phil Kessel the way he is, or whether his attitude set the culture in the dressing room is a chicken and the egg argument for those of us who have never been inside the dressing room, therefore, a fair assessment of a player can only be done one way: statistically.

At the time of the writing of this article, Phil Kessel leads the Toronto Maple Leafs with 41 points: 18 goals, 23 assists. The Leafs are now at the exact midpoint of their season, having played 41 out of their scheduled 82 regular season games, giving Kessel a nice and even 1.00 point per game this season, a team best. He also leads the team in shots with 131, trailed closely by James van Riemsdyk, who has 129. Phil Kessel sits third last in the team in terms of plus-minus, carrying a rating of -9, slightly better than Jake Gardiner and Roman Polak, which rank -15 and -10 respectively. Kessel hardly spends any time in the penalty box, accumulating a total of 10 penalty minutes so far this season.

Here’s where the stats give a more telling story. When comparing Kessel’s performance with the rest of the team, we see that the Toronto Maple Leafs have been able to find the back of the net a grand total of 132 times, meaning that Kessel has been directly contributing to approximately 31 percent of the total offensive output for the team. That means that for every 10 goals, statistically speaking, Kessel is likely to figure in at least 3, along with many other elite forwards with similar numbers.

Out of the 41 games played by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Phil Kessel has figured at least a point in 24 of those games, and during stretches where Phil Kessel tallies at least a point, the Leafs are an impressive 18-5-1, while their record when Kessel is held off the scoresheet is an abysmal 3-12-2. Thinking realistically, a player cannot be expected to score a point every single game of their career, meaning that the problem goes much, much deeper than just Phil Kessel, and based on the record with Kessel being held off the scoresheet, it’s clear that it’s the lack of secondary scoring that can be depended on to steal every other game.

To further help Phil Kessel’s case, let’s dispel the myth that he is “streaky,” where he goes on stretches where he disappears from the scoresheet and then appears. Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of Phil Kessel’s scoring, highlighting games in which he didn’t figure in the offense of the Toronto Maple Leafs at all:

Game Number Kessel Points:
1 0 points
2 0 points
3 3 points (1G, 2A)
4 2 points (1G, 1A)
5 0 points
6 0 points
7 3 points (2G, 1A)
8 0 points
9 2 points (1G, 1A)
10 3 points (1G, 2A)
11 1 point (Assist)
12 2 points (2A)
13 2 points (1G, 1A)
14 1 point (Goal)
15 0 points
16 2 points (2G)
17 0 points
18 1 point (Goal)
19 0 points
20 1 point (Assist)
21 0 points
22 0 points
23 2 points (2A)
24 1 point (Goal)
25 1 point (Goal)
26 0 points
27 1 point (Goal)
28 1 point (Goal)
29 1 point (Assist)
30 1 point (Assist)
31 3 points (2G, 1A)
32 0 points
33 2 points (2A)
34 0 points
35 2 points (2A)
36 0 points
37 1 point (Assist)
38 2 points (1G, 1A)
39 0 points
40 0 points
41 0 points


That’s right. Kessel’s longest streak was a 6-game scoring streak, with his current 3-game scoring drought being the longest this season. Here are three other players’ scoring records given blindly so you can compare consistency:


Game Player 1 Player 2 Player 3
1 3 points (2G, 1A) 0 points 1 point (Assist)
2 3 points (1G, 2A) 2 points (1G, 1A) 2 points (1G, 1A)
3 1 point (Goal) 1 point (Assist) 0 points
4 2 points (2A) 2 points (2A) 0 points
5 0 points 2 points (1G, 1A) 2 points (2G)
6 0 points 0 points 0 points
7 3 points (1G, 2A) 2 points (2A) 1 point (Assist)
8 2 points (2G) 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Assist)
9 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Assist) 0 points
10 3 points (3A) 2 points (2A) 0 points
11 1 point (Assist) 0 points 1 point (Assist)
12 0 points 1 point (Assist) 0 points
13 5 points (5A) 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Goal)
14 0 points 3 points (2G, 1A) 0 points
15 1 point (Assist) 2 points (1G, 1A) 1 point (Assist)
16 0 points 1 point (Assist) 0 points
17 1 point (Assist) 0 points 1 point (Goal)
18 0 points 1 point (Goal) 3 points (1G, 2A)
19 0 points 2 points (2A) 2 points (1G, 1A)
20 3 points (1G, 2A) 0 points 2 points (1G, 1A)
21 2 points (2A) 2 points (1G, 1A) 0 points
22 2 points (2A) 0 points 3 points (3A)
23 0 points 1 point (Assist) 2 points (2G)
24 0 points 0 points 0 points
25 0 points 1 point (Assist) 2 points (2G)
26 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Goal) 1 point (Assist)
27 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Assist) 0 points
28 Did not play 2 points (2A) 0 points
29 Did not play 2 points (2A) 1 point (Goal)
30 0 points 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Goal)
31 0 points 0 points 1 point (Assist)
32 1 point (Goal) 4 points (2G, 2A) 3 points (1G, 2A)
33 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Assist) 1 point (Goal)
34 0 points 1 point (Goal) 3 points (1G, 2A)
35 0 points 1 point (Goal) 0 points
36 1 point (Goal) 0 points 3 points (2G 1A)
37 0 points 1 point (Goal) 1 point (Assist)
38 4 points (4A) 0 points 1 point (Assist)
39 1 point (Assist) Did not play 1 point (Goal)
40 0 points 1 point (Assist) 0 points
41 —- —- —-
TOTAL 43 points (11G, 32A) 1.16 ppg 44 points (13G, 31A) 1.13 ppg 42 points (19G, 23A) 1.05 ppg


Players 2 and 3 both match Kessel’s 6-game scoring streak, while player 1 has a longer pointless drought with 4 games. Players 1 and 3 11 multi-point nights, while player 2 has 12, all of which trail Phil Kessel’s 13. Did you figure them out yet? They are none other than Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane. Their scoring distribution looks very similar to that of Phil Kessel’s, effectively putting him into the elite point scorers of the NHL, whether perceived consistency is an issue or not. Granted, all of the above hold plus-minus ratings of 10, 8 and 8 respectively, so the only real “flaw” in Phil Kessel’s game is his defensive aspect, but even Evgeni Malkin has a poor plus-minus, ranking at just 1.

Needless to say, Phil Kessel is being used as a whipping boy of sorts, despite the fact that his cap hit is $8 million a year, and he is poised to make $10 million for this season and next, Kessel earns his money rightfully so; he does not get paid to defend, but to help get pucks in the back of the opposition’s net, whether it’s by his hand or a teammates’. While more commitment to the defensive effort would effectively quiet the criticism thrown his way, the lack of secondary scoring and the disappearing act from the Maple Leafs’ defensive corps is not Phil Kessel’s fault, but the defense and the coaches’. If anything, Phil Kessel was probably one of the few players who was tuned into Randy Carlyle’s message, regardless of how he felt about him.

Pedro Rengel

Pedro Rengel

Originally hailing from the tropical paradise of Venezuela, I moved to Canada at age 11 for the sole reason of falling in love with hockey as a self-proclaimed Pittsburgh Penguins fan. Now a Canadian citizen, my mad love affair with hockey represents a statistical contribution as opposed to an anomaly. Being able to write this well despite having Spanish as a first language is enough of an anomaly (I'm occasionally biased).
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