Phil Kessel was the last player picked in Friday's inaugural "fantasy draft" for the NHL All-Star game, as captains Eric Staal and Nicklas Lidstrom selected the squads for Saturday's skills competition and Sunday's exhibition game.
Regardless of where he was picked, Kessel is still an All-Star, an achievement he's never enjoyed before in his five-year NHL career, the first three of which were spent in Boston. It's an achievement about 650 of his fellow NHLers sitting at home this weekend would love to add to their resume.
And for his troubles, Kessel got to take home a free car and make a $20,000 donation to the charity of his choice. Not bad for having to stew for an extra few minutes while 35 other All-Stars got their names called ahead of him.
It's not something that should have a lasting effect on a professional athlete, but Phil Kessel has never been your average professional athlete. It's hard not to play armchair psychologist with Kessel. With the withdrawn body language, the awkwardness around teammates and the excruciating media scrums, how do you not try to analyze what it all means, whether you have the proper degrees on the wall or not?
And it doesn't take any special coursework to know that Kessel doesn't handle negative feedback particularly well. He never got over Claude Julien benching him for three games in the 2008 playoffs. Even though it was exactly the wakeup call Kessel needed and it helped bring the best out of him, with Kessel scoring three goals in his first two games back and following up the next season with a career-high 36 goals, the young forward never got past his resentment over being benched and ultimately forced his way out of town with the trade to the Maple Leafs in 2009.
Kessel hasn't exactly thrived in Toronto either, where the scrutiny of the league's largest media corps and a long-suffering fan base can be overwhelming. Kessel has gotten his goals for the Leafs, 30 last year and 19 so far this season, but he's also drawn plenty of scorn with his often lackadaisical play and the one-dimensional nature of his game. Kessel hasn't suddenly embraced the physical aspects of the game or developed more diligence in his defensive efforts since leaving Boston, as his minus-19 rating at the break will attest. Only four of the 808 skaters who have played in the league this year have a worse plus/minus.
Now Kessel finds himself in the one place he likes to spend time even less than his own zone – in the spotlight. No one cared on Friday that Carolina goalie Cam Ward was the first pick in the All-Star draft. It was only who would be left sitting there last that captured almost everyone's imagination. And it certainly didn't help that Kessel's All-Star peers seemed to revel in watching his squirm.
Maybe Alex Ovechkin would have taken a perverse delight in seeing the reaction of any of his fellow All-Stars in that situation. There's no way to know, but there's also no denying that he certainly enjoyed watching Kessel wait, filming the reaction on his phone with an almost maniacal grin on his face.
The other players got in their jabs as well. Most was good-natured ribbing, the kind of thing that goes on all the time in locker rooms. But Kessel always struggled to fit in that environment, at least in his time in Boston. Who knows how he'll respond this time around.
He could use it as motivation, show everyone they were wrong to pass on him and bring home another car as Sunday's MVP. That hasn't exactly worked in the past, as his 0-1-1 line and minus-6 rating in nine games against Boston certainly hasn't made the Bruins regret dealing him. But Kessel is well-suited to excel in the All-Star Game, the perfect venue for his skills with its complete absence of physical play and defensive intensity. Of course, that just makes it all the more strange that neither captain wanted anything to do with Kessel on Friday.
Lidstrom didn't even bother to announce the pick himself, leaving the duty to assistant captain Patrick Kane, who couldn't suppress a smile as he made the selection, pausing briefly before finally saying Kessel's name, almost as if he was hoping there was still an alternative in the audience he could call.
"We're happy with our last pick in the draft," Kane said. "We'll take, uh, Phil Kessel."
Then followed one of the most awkward moments in recent television history, as Kessel accepted his jersey and sheepishly trudged up the stairs to the final seat on the podium, seemingly oblivious to host James Duthie's repeated calls to stop for an interview.
Kessel finally walked back down, and attempted to put up a brave front.
"I'm just happy to be here," Kessel told Duthie. "It's a great honor and I'm happy to be here."
But when pressed, Kessel did admit, "Yeah, it was nerve-wracking, but what does it matter?"
It shouldn't matter. Kessel should be thrilled with his first All-Star selection, even if he was the last one selected. But with Kessel, you never really know how he's going to react to even the slightest hint of adversity, and how this Mr. Irrelevant responds could prove very relevant to Toronto's future fortunes.
How do you think Phil Kessel will handle being picked last in the NHL All-Star fantasy draft? Share your thoughts below.
Powered by WordPress.com VIP