In just his third NHL season, Phil Kessel reached his potential as an offensive force and, as the Bruins’ brass likes to call him, a “game-breaker.” But a funny thing happened on his way to emerging as the club’s leading goal-scorer — Kessel also found an ability to stay responsible in his own end and become a backchecking force. He even earned some late-season penalty-killing duties.
Only injuries and a bout with mononucleosis hindered Kessel’s pursuit of even loftier statistical goals. Those three games he was a healthy scratch in the ’08 playoffs obviously taught Kessel a lesson — one that he obviously carried with him throughout this season.
Stats: 70 GP, 36-24-60, 16 PIM, plus-23 regular season; 11 GP, 6-5-11, 4 PIM, plus-7 playoffs.
Contract status: RFA July 1.
Season highlight: In a season that featured an 18-game point streak (tying the all-time NHL record by a U.S.-born player) and Kessel displaying seemingly every offensive move in his repertoire, his biggest goal might’ve included a little luck. With the Bruins trailing 1-0 in Game 3 of their playoff series with Montreal, Kessel redirected Dennis Wideman’s shot past Carey Price to tie the score with 1:25 left in the first period. Any hopes the Habs, already down 2-0 in the series, had of climbing back in the series were pretty much dashed right there.
Season low light: In pursuit of a puck in the second period March 10 at Columbus, Kessel was shoved hard into the boards by Blue Jackets defenseman Jan Hejda. Obviously shaken up on the play, Kessel returned for the third period but was never close to 100 percent healthy the rest of the season. He produced seven goals in eight games down the stretch, but also missed six contests. And although he produced in the Montreal series, he struggled against Carolina and then had to have surgery, which will keep him out probably until December.
In summation … Kessel, at just 21, had a breakthrough third year in a league, during which he made a commitment to be a better all-around player (and it worked).
Grade: A-minus. Now it’s up to Kessel to find a level of consistency and make sure to keep his creativity while making stronger, safer plays with the puck when things don’t develop exactly how he wants.
The crystal ball says … it’ll take some creative cap management by the Bruins to retain Kessel along with fellow RFA David Krejci and field a competitive team comparable to this season’s squad. Wherever he goes, Kessel will continue to blossom into one of the league’s premier scorers and that’s why Boston should think long and hard before deciding what to do with the speedy winger.