Just hours after he slipped to second in the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau midseason rankings last Friday, Phil Kessel-the most ballyhooed U.S. forward since Mike Modano-returned to No. 1 form. The 5'11", 190-pound Minnesota Gophers freshman earned two power-play assists on tic-tac-toe passes, gave three defenders whiplash with his dipsy-doodling, won 61% of his face-offs, skated at Mach 4 and put a game-high eight shots on net. Later, the 18-year-old Kessel, all sincerity and startling blue eyes, said he doesn't care about his ranking. "It doesn't matter where you go [in the draft]," he added. "You have to prove yourself no matter what."
In 2005, after a four-goal coming-out party at the World Juniors (in one game he hurdled a defender before sniping a goal) and while carrying the U.S. Under-18 team to the IIHF title, Kessel became one of the main figures in hockey's favorite let's pretend game: If Kessel and Sidney Crosby, who is two months older, were in the same draft class, whom would be picked No. 1? Now, extrapolating from his drab performance at the '06 World Juniors earlier this month-the first blemish on a dazzling résumé, despite a tournament-high 11 points-several NHL scouts merely have Kessel in the No. 1 mix with Central Scouting's new favorite, Gophers-bound defenseman Erik Johnson, and with North Dakota freshman Jonathan Toews.
In Vancouver, Kessel scored only once, and five of his 10 assists came in the opener against overmatched Norway. He was not much of a factor in the more physical games, and favored Team USA failed to win a medal. Even his signature inside-out move (think Reggie Bush on skates) looked shopworn; Kessel kept trying to baffle defensemen with it, but the puck generally wound up in their skates. When Team Canada's defense held Kessel to one assist in the preliminary round, one of its blueliners sneered, "Nice move."
"There's a lot of pressure," Kessel, the top freshman scorer in the nation (29 points in 22 games through Sunday), said last Thursday. "It gets tough at times. People think highly of you and want you to [achieve] all this stuff, and then they badmouth you."
Like the defensemen who backed off when Kessel bore down on them at the World Juniors, NHL scouts should take a giant step back. Kessel is still on track to become an impact NHL player. "Kessel's been dominant at the 18-year-old level for a couple of years," New Jersey Devils director of scouting David Conte said. "He's been an explosive player at critical times. The prodigious results he's had are indisputable. Now, do they continue? The greatest likelihood is they will."
Kessel's growth will be helped by the fact that he has superb players around him at Minnesota, including power-play mates Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, with more on the way, given the commitments from Johnson (a member of the U.S. Under-18 team) and forward Peter Mueller, Central Scouting's No. 5 prospect, who currently plays juniors for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. The Gophers play a delightful freewheeling style, which should allow Kessel to use his speed most effectively-unless, of course, he matriculates to the pros immediately after this June's draft. "By the end of this season," Irmen said, "Phil will be the best player in college hockey."
Says Minnesota coach Don Lucia, "I've told Phil he'll have two difficult years in his career: his draft year and the year he goes to the NHL, with all their pressures. After that he'll settle in. I hope he gets through this year, enjoys himself and leads us to a really strong finish. The most important thing I want to see from him is a smile every day."
• For weekly NHL power rankings, go to SI.com/NHL.
In The Crease
A month ago, after Flyers goalie Robert Esche reinjured his groin, general manager Bob Clarke was calling other teams, in search of a replacement. However, after rookie Antero Niittymaki (above) made every start on an 11-game road trip that ended last Thursday, Philadelphia has found its No. 1 goalie. Niittymaki went 8-3 with a .907 save percentage, a performance made more impressive by the absence of defensemen Joni Pitkanen (abdominal muscle tear) and Eric Desjardins (shoulder surgery).... The 227th pick in the 2001 draft, rookie Marek Svatos of Colorado has 26 goals this season, including a league-high eight game-winners. Teammates Joe Sakic and Rob Blake marvel at the 23-year-old right wing's ability to create offense; Svatos has some of the most deceiving one-on-one moves in the NHL.... Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman moved to seventh in alltime career assists last Thursday when he got his 1,050th in a 6-3 win over the Flyers. Though his 40-year-old forward had played more than a minute on a third-period shift, Detroit coach Mike Babcock kept him on the ice, and Yzerman set up Robert Lang for the Red Wings' final goal.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (TOP)
GOLDEN BOY With 29 points at week's end, Kessel was the nation's top freshman scorer.