VANCOUVER, B.C. — Twelve months ago, the shy and unassuming Phil Kessel might have looked forward to his draft day with plenty of excitement.
As this Saturday and the NHL Entry Draft arrived and passed, the emotion that Kessel seemed to exude was relief. When the Boston Bruins made Kessel the fifth overall pick, the waiting, speculation and yes, maybe even some pain for Kessel was over.
It was a year ago that Kessel, one of the most talked-about recruits to enter the college game in some time, was the top-rated prospect for the 2006 Entry Draft. Despite putting up 51 points in 39 games with Minnesota and an additional 11 points in seven games at the World Junior tournament, Kessel’s stock fell.
Entering Saturday, Kessel was ranked fifth by the NHL Central Scouting Service and fourth by the International Scouting Service. Rumors had him going anywhere from second to eighth, a range for which the top is somewhat bearable. The bottom, though, for Kessel seemed downright scary.
“It’s tough sitting through those picks, but all of those guys are good guys and great players,” said Kessel, wearing a foot-wide smile after landing with the Bruins. “I wasn’t that upset [at falling to five]. I think I have something to prove now that I got drafted fifth, but hopefully I’ll go out and show that maybe I should have been picked higher.”
The reasons a player of Kessel’s ability could fall are sometimes explainable. For Kessel, that doesn’t seem possible.
Jeff Gorton, interim general manager for the Boston Bruins, even admitted that he was left scratching his head about Kessel’s stock value. Though he said he wasn’t surprised he was still available at five, enough rumors in recent days indicated that Kessel was a player at whom the Bruins needed to take a closer look.
Gorton and his staff asked Kessel to meet with the team this week in Vancouver. Having interviewed him last month at the NHL Draft Combine in Chicago, the Bruins decided there were more questions on the table to be asked.
“There were so many rumors and things. We wanted to address them all,” said Gorton. “He was good. He didn’t back away from anything.”
Both Gorton and Erik Johnson, a former teammate of Kessel with the U.S. National Team Development Program who was one of the players to pass Kessel on draft day (going first overall), said they think that the criticism of Kessel is unwarranted. Likened to Pat Lafontaine, Kessel, in Gorton’s eyes, is a complete player and someone around whom the Bruins believe they can build a club.
Gorton said that Kessel was emotional throughout the interview process when asked about the criticism he’d received.
“People write things and people say things and scouts ask him things, the only way to defend himself is to go out and show them,” Gorton said. “What do you say when people criticize you as a hockey player? It’s just hard. I think he’s emotional about that because he’s confident in his hockey play.
“I think when you’re talked about so much as a hockey player, people get jealous, especially when you have that kind of talent. We certainly don’t think there’s any problem or we certainly wouldn’t have taken him.”
The question Kessel now will face is not whether he has the ability to play in the NHL — people have always known he does, and Saturday’s fifth overall pick validates it. Kessel now has to decide in which venue he’ll be proving his worth.
“I’d like to [play in the NHL right now], but if that doesn’t happen I can go back to college,” said Kessel. “I have a lot of friends there. It was a fun time last year.”
Gorton, who says he envisions Kessel playing on the wing as opposed to center, wouldn’t tip his hat as to what the Bruins’ organization would like for next year.
“I’d like him to sit down and chat with his family and figure out what he’d like to do,” Gorton said. “Then we’ll let him know what we feel.”
Of the top five clubs in Saturday’s Draft, Boston is probably the team that most needs immediate help. Gorton said that he envisions Kessel on a line with current players like Marco Sturm and Patrice Bergeron, but also that the club may have to search for a player through either a trade or free agency.
Whatever the case, wherever the place, one thing seems obvious — Phil Kessel just wants a chance to play, and do whatever he can to prove to both those who support him and criticize him that he’s worthy of wearing an NHL jersey.