Another year at Minnesota would benefit Kessel in the long run

Kessel led the NCAA in freshman scoring, with 51 points last season.

C.J. Spang

When Phil Kessel signed his letter of intent to play for the Gophers hockey team, I immediately called my uncle to gloat.

I had to point out to my uncle, a Badgers hockey fan who lives down the street from Kessel’s family in Madison, Wis., that Kessel spurned his hometown team to play at Minnesota.

Before my job as a reporter stripped me of my opinion, I was a devout follower of the Gophers hockey team and assumed that Kessel, coupled with all his hype, all but assured Minnesota of another national title.

But I had to eat my words when Holy Cross shocked the hockey world with their NCAA Tournament upset of the Gophers and then Wisconsin marched on to a national championship.

Now, nearly five months after that devastating defeat, Minnesota fans are once again waiting on Kessel to make up his mind.

This time, however, they are waiting to see if he decides to sign with the Boston Bruins and play professionally or come back for another season with the Gophers.

Certainly Kessel would be welcomed back, considering he led the NCAA in freshman scoring with 51 points – the seventh-best freshman season in Minnesota history – and the fact that the Gophers have already lost three forwards to early departure.

But at the same time, it would be extremely difficult for Kessel to turn down the likely fame, fortune and success that awaits him in the professional ranks.

Difficult or not, coming back to Minnesota is the best decision Kessel could make for himself at this point – if he wants to live up to the hype that has surrounded him.

While there is no question Kessel has the talent to play in the NHL, there are other factors that should be considered – namely, his maturity and size.

Before coming to Minnesota, Kessel was being compared to Sidney Crosby, the 18-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins rookie phenom who scored 102 points last season.

Kessel is two months younger than Crosby, but Crosby is much more mature as a hockey player.

Crosby played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for two seasons – scoring 135 and 168 points in 59 and 62 games, respectively – before heading to the NHL.

Kessel, on the other hand, spent two years in the U.S.

National Developmental Program, not exactly the same caliber of competition as major juniors.

But tack on two years of Division I hockey – if Kessel stays – and maturity won’t be a question.

As for his size, at 6 feet and 189 pounds, Kessel wouldn’t be the smallest player on the Bruins roster, but he’d probably play like it.

It became very obvious last season that Kessel doesn’t like to get hit. Unfortunately for him, that’s a major part of hockey.

While he will be faster than many players in the NHL, he won’t always be able to duck a check. I shudder to think about someone like Todd Bertuzzi – who nearly murdered Steve Moore on the ice a few years back – sending Kessel sprawling across the ice.

But, if Kessel takes a page of out junior Alex Goligoski’s playbook and puts on 15 pounds of muscle between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he would definitely have a better chance of success in the NHL.

If Kessel hopes to live up to the expectations of being “the greatest American-born skater” ever, as he was dubbed before coming to Minnesota, then another year in school is a must.

– C.J. Spang welcomes comments at [email protected].