The draft class of 2006 was littered with talent up the middle, as eight of the first ten picks were centers. Out of those eight, only the fifth pick, Boston’s Phil Kessel, and the second pick, Jordan Staal, of the Pittsburgh Penguins played in the 06-07 campaign. All of the remaining centers have made the jump to the NHL with the exception of the tenth pick of the Florida Panthers, Michael Frolik, who is currently contributing to the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic squad. The Chicago Blackhawks have recently named their third pick from that draft, Jonathan Toews, the team captain after only a year, while Nicklas Backstrom (4th overall) of the Washington Capitals, and Peter Mueller (8th) of the Phoenix Coyotes have made a significant impact on their respective teams during their rookie 07-08 season. Is Kessel ready to make the leap along with his peers from the ’06 draft class to an elite level?
Kessel put his much ballyhooed individual skills on display in 07-08 by leading the league with five shootout winning goals. The five extra points proved quite valuable in the logjam for the last few spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. After the first game of the playoffs against Montreal, Kessel’s lackluster performance earned him a spot in the press box as a healthy scratch (in the playoffs, the shootout happens as much in the press box as it does on the ice). Kessel returned with what we can only hope is a glimpse of his potential future, scoring the first goal of Game 5, and his two-way play was definitely inspired (not mind-blowing, but a serious upgrade from the minor two-way play previously seen). In Game 6, Kessel was able to use those fancy one-on-one skills to absolutely undress Francis Bouillon (start at 0:18) for easily the best goal I have ever seen scored in person. In the coming year, Kessel needs to make the next step and become a 30 goal scorer. If he is potting 30 goals a year, I can easily deal with a minus rating.
Over the past year, I have wavered on whether or not Kessel should be used for trade bait, but, right now, I am on board with giving him time to develop. One has to imagine his progress has been somewhat slowed due to his health issues in 06-07, and then, a new defensive-first system under Claude Julien in 07-08. With Kessel being an RFA next year, there is no reason to move him yet, and his numbers improved over his abbreviated rookie year, and I expect to see further increased production this year. Gabe made a good point that with the glut of centers on the Bruins depth chart, Kessel, and his low faceoff percentage, should shift to wing permanently (I think a Kessel-Savard-Ryder line could prove to be quite interesting).
Like most, I think my expectations of Kessel were a little too high when he came into the organization. His attitude and work ethic were areas of concern when he was a drafted. It’s early, but it looks like Kessel has potentially retained the grit he found in last year’s playoff series during the first preseason game against Montreal. He is taking strides towards becoming a premiere player, and although I want to see that statistical breakout season, I’m not completely sold yet that he is at that point. Kessel is still a young, quality player that I would like to see the Bruins continue to develop, rather than trade him away for spare parts. The team may even be better off is Kessel continues to have a steady development as opposed to a meteoric rise. Let’s pretend we all believe Michael Ryder will reach the 30 goal mark this year and takes some of the scoring burden off the other forwards. If this is the case, Kessel could mount a 25 goal campaign (I am using the 30 goal mark as an identifier for a “breakout year”), the team could retain him for a lower price on a multi-year deal and then hope in the coming seasons he has that breakout year. Even if he doesn’t, the Bruins would still have a young 25 goal scorer on your squad. If the breakout year comes this season there will be a hefty pay check to go along with it (see: Staal, Eric) which could handcuff the Bruins pretty severely.