He is one of college hockey’s most exciting young players and one of the most scrutinized.
Coming into the 2005-06 season, no collegiate player had a more glaring spotlight on him than University of Minnesota freshman Phil Kessel.
The Madison, WI native has handled the exceedingly high and sometimes unrealistic expectations with grace, dignity and humility throughout the season. In the process, he has become far more than the “one dimensional” player that some have labeled him.
Kessel ranks fifth on the NHL Central Scouting’s Final Rankings for the upcoming draft. While he is projected to go in the top five, he could possibly be selected first overall.
Kessel concluded his freshman campaign leading the nation in rookie scoring with 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists). His 33 assists as well as his 1.31 points per game also led all rookies. His 51 points and 10 power play goals both rank second on the Golden Gophers team. He has notched at least one point in 28 of the 39 games he has played in this season. In seven of the 28 games, he has posted three or more points.
On Oct. 21 versus in-state rival Minnesota State-Mankato, Kessel became the first player in the University of Minnesota’s storied history to score his first collegiate career goal on a penalty shot.
Kessel’s stellar freshman season earned him numerous accolades, including the WCHA and Inside College Hockey Rookie of the Year honors. He is a three-time WCHA Rookie of the Week honoree and was named the CSTV/HCA National Rookie of the Month for November. He was also a member of the USA squad at the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championships in Vancouver. Most recently, Kessel was selected to play for Team USA at the World Championships currently taking place in Riga, Latvia.
Prior to his arrival in the Twin Cities, Kessel played two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP). In his final (2004-05) season, Kessel amassed an astounding 98 points (52 goals, 46 assists) to lead the team. His 52 goals set a new program single-season record. During his tenure with the USNTDP, Kessel participated in numerous international tournaments. In 2005, he led Team USA to a gold medal at the IIHF World U-18 Championship in the Czech Republic and earned the IIHF’s Directorate Award as the tournament’s most outstanding forward with 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in six games.
Kessel is a marvel to watch. He combines dazzling moves with excellent hockey sense, tremendous poise and confidence with the puck, a tireless work ethic, and a very professional approach to the game. Kessel is a player who can make those around him better and has the ability to make things happen.
In an interview with Hockey’s Future just prior to the conclusion of the 2005-06 season, University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia articulated his praise and assessment of his young player.
“Phil has had a tremendous year for us. He’s been a big reason why we won the MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular season champions). A freshman like Phil who can come in and do what he’s done, it doesn’t happen very often. He’s matured and growing both as a player and as a person. What I’ve been impressed with is that he’s been a good listener and teammate and he’s actually done everything that we’ve asked of him. I think he’s a pretty happy kid right now, which is nice to see.”
One attribute that immediately jumps out about Kessel is his extraordinary skating ability. His explosive speed and effortless strides are what set him apart from just about every other player in the nation.
Kessel, like any other rookie, learned to adjust and adapt quickly to the rigors and pace of the collegiate game. The expectations placed on Kessel by those outside of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey pale in comparison to the incredibly high expectations that he places upon himself. His modesty, drive, passion, and his great attention to the fine details of the game have helped make him a better hockey player.
One characteristic that makes Kessel such a highly-regarded player is the way he thinks the game. He is immensely smart and with great vision. He has shown that he can read and anticipate plays quite well. Furthermore, he is very good at finding open spaces on the ice, knows just where the developing play is going, and where he needs to be.
While Kessel is known for his amazing scoring prowess, he is also a superb and creative playmaker. He makes outstanding tape-to-tape passes and has little trouble finding open passing lanes. He has also demonstrated a keen sense of making the right decisions with the puck.
“I think his hands are the most underrated aspect about Phil. People talk about his skating ability, but his passing ability is incredible and it’s hard. A lot of times those passes are coming so hard that guys can’t even hang on to them,” said Lucia. “He can make those great tape-to-tape passes. Skilled players will try things that the average player can’t.”
One of the turning points in Kessel’s freshman season came during his time at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver. His speed and acceleration along with offensive and shooting abilities were the most notable aspects about Kessel at the WJC, despite what some viewed as a disappointing performance. However, it was his collegiate team that reaped the rewards from his WJC experience. The added confidence that Kessel brought back to Minnesota benefited the team greatly in the second half of the season.
“I think he’s more comfortable in his skin right now. I think some of the burden that he had in the first half of the season made him feel that he wasn’t doing well enough. I kept trying to remind him that he was the leading scoring freshman in the country and he was the second youngest freshman in the country. It’s OK for Phil to be Phil. I think that he’s done a terrific job and has really come a long way since the beginning of the season,” said Lucia.
Kessel has made great strides in a variety of areas of his game during the course of the season, particularly on the defensive side. He has learned to be responsible in his own end and has improved his positional play going up against opposing players. He has also made improvements in utilizing his teammates more effectively. Lucia notes that Kessel has developed a “pass-first, shoot-second” approach. As with any 18-year-old player, Kessel has room to improve and develop in every part of his game, most notably gaining more body strength. All of these things are helping to make Kessel a more well-rounded and complete player.
His vast repertoire of skills and the immense talent that he has been so blessed with make Kessel’s potential seem virtually limitless. Being one of the most highly-touted draft eligible players brings with it the possibility of an early collegiate departure. Regardless, Lucia believes that Kessel’s return to the team for his sophomore season is a strong possibility.
Matt MacInnis contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.