Monday, February 9, 2015

Phil Kessel = Rick Vaive

"He's a lot like Lanny McDonald, when he's coming down that wing. If they get him the puck, he doesn't waste too much time letting it go. He's got a very quick release."
The above quote is from November, 1983 by Pittsburgh Penguins (ex-Maple Leaf) defenceman Randy Carlyle prior to a game against the Leafs. Carlyle was referring to Leaf captain Rick Vaive but could have just as easily been referring to a guy he would coach 30 years later, Phil Kessel.
Is Phil Kessel the Rick Vaive of the current era?

Both Vaive and Kessel were/are elite goal scorers that were/are much maligned by media and fans alike. Neither could ever do enough to appease the masses and always seemed to be under the most intense scrutiny, both on and off the ice.

Both snipers were acquired via trade by the Leafs at a very young age, Vaive from Vancouver at 20 years old, Kessel from Boston at 21. Each of them quickly developed into top-flight sniping wingers. In consecutive seasons (1982-84), Vaive finished fifth, seventh and fifth in the NHL in goals. Kessel has finished fifth, sixth and is currently just outside the top-ten in goals. In those same years, Vaive placed sixth each season in All-Star voting at Right Wing. In the past three seasons Kessel has placed fifth, fourth and third at Left Wing.

Neither Vaive nor Kessel were known for their defensive play but more than made up for it with their elite level shooting ability. Vaive was known for his hard accurate slap shot coming down the wing, while Kessel is renowned for his world-class, stick bending wrist shot. The one thing Kessel does have on Vaive is his play-making ability, he truly is an under-rated passer with a great vision of the ice. Vaive was however a far tougher player usually racking up well over 100 PIMs while Kessel consistently garners Lady Byng votes.

Dec, 19, 1986 Montreal Gazette
One other huge similarity between Vaive and Kessel is the fact they were and are lightning rods for criticism when their respective teams' struggled, which is often. Phil Kessel has been called "uncoachable" and  a "coach killer". Similar sentiments were directed at Rick Vaive thirty years before. In a Canadian Press article from December of 1984, longtime Leaf great Borje Salming blamed the media for trade speculation involving Vaive;

"It's part of hockey," he said of the rumoured shakeup, "Nobody likes it but you can't do anything about it. I've been here 12 years and you can't get too serious about it or you go crazy." Salming said the media had picked on Vaive because the team was slumping and the captain was seen as the team's 'big gun'.

Sounds familiar.
As much as Kessel has to endure crticism from the media and fans, at least he doesn't have to deal with another element of criticism that Vaive did, from his owner. In March 1984 in a Canadian Press story titled Ballard won't open the vault for star Vaive, Leaf owner and crumudgeon Harold Ballard shows how not to treat a star player;

When it was suggested that Vaive rated a salary in line with the game's other superstars, Ballard responded: "If you play with a lot of guys who can't play hockey and you get a lot of goals, that doesn't signify that you're the greatest, does it? If he (Vaive) was playing on the old Montreal Canadiens and Toronto clubs, he's probably be just a mediocre player."

Wow. This really is more a statement of the calibre of players that Ballard surrounded Vaive with than of Vaive himself. Just another of the countless head-shaking comments from the worst owner in league history.

In the end, Vaive of course lasted two more seasons after this comment before being traded to Chicago prior to the 87/88 campaign. His 0.50 career goals per game ranks him 19th in NHL history and makes him one of the most under-appreciated over-vilified stars the game has ever had. Like it or not, it would seem that Phil Kessel is following in pretty much the same footsteps.

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