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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Kessel watch begins

They are watching him -- his teammates, his coaches, the fans, his general manager -- because Bruins draft pick Phil Kessel represents so many delicious possibilities. His raw, unbridled ability is tantalizing, seductive even.

During a brief practice Tuesday in Wilmington before the team departed for Montreal, his unit was on the power play, and Kessel was in the corner, to the right of the goal, when two defenders converged and seemingly had him pinned against the glass. Yet, a split second before they arrived, Kessel deftly flipped a blind pass backward to Glen Murray, laying the puck on the meat of his stick.

It was the kind of play that made you want to turn to a fellow puckhead and exclaim: Did you see that?

You want to see him. We all do. The Bruins have tested our patience and our wallets. They have teased us, tricked us, turned us off. Every season, they promise it will be different. The purge from last year's woeful campaign included the coach, the GM, the former superstar, even the fan's favorite foil (adieu, Hal Gill, you deserved better). This is a new day, a new team, and with the exception of a few stalwarts (Murray, PJ Axelsson, Patrice Bergeron), the Bruins are out for blood with new blood of their own.

Phil Kessel wants to be part of this turnaround. Desperately. Not all 18-year-olds with just one season of college hockey can make this jump, and the Bruins are reserving judgment about their top pick (No. 5 overall). The skills are clearly there. But is the proper mind-set?

``I want to make this team really badly," Kessel said. ``It's the reason I left college. I know it's hard for them. They want to look out for my best interests. I've got to live with whatever they decide, but I'd be disappointed if I don't make it.

``I came here to play for the Boston Bruins."

The pros and the cons are laid out neatly before general manager Peter Chiarelli. Kessel has been blessed with soft hands, lightning speed, and that intangible quality of instinctively locating the open man. He is also very young.

Two years ago, Kessel and Pittsburgh Penguins phenom Sidney Crosby were spoken of in the same hushed tones.

But that was before Kessel was filmed with his University of Minnesota teammates at a pub even though he was underage; before an ESPN The Magazine article in the days leading up to the draft portrayed him as cocksure, irresponsible, and immature. Then there was his performance in the World Junior Championships in Vancouver, where, Chiarelli concedes, ``He played well, but not great, like he has in the past."

On draft day, Kessel, once projected to be a No. 1 or 2 pick, slid all the way to 5. If you think it didn't bother him, you are sadly mistaken.

``All of a sudden people were saying, `We don't know where he is going to fall,' " Kessel said. ``I didn't understand. I haven't had a bad year in hockey. In Vancouver, I led the team in points. I just didn't score as many goals. I don't know what made people think what they did. I'm just happy the Bruins believed in me."

Kessel is bent on wiping his slate squeaky clean, and in checking with his new teammates and front office, the reviews have been favorable. He has been dutiful, respectful, and understated.

``His eyes have been wide open, and he's had big ears," reports coach Dave Lewis. ``He's been very humble."

He has also been electric on the ice. In his professional debut Tuesday night in Montreal, Kessel dished out two assists against the Canadiens and earned himself the No. 3 star for the game. One Montreal headline asked the following morning: The Next Patrice Bergeron? If the Kid plays like that every night, it will make it impossible to demote him to Providence. He has all the tools to be a star.

Ah, but here's the rub: It's not as simple as finding a spot on the roster for Kessel. If he does make it with the big boys, it can't be as a fourth-line checker.

``He's the kind of player that if he's going to be up here, he's going to have to play on one of the top lines," agreed Lewis. ``You don't want him up here sitting, playing six or seven minutes a night."

``It's the age-old question," Chiarelli said. ``Will he play enough to develop his skills? Can he play a subordinate role, if necessary? With Phil, we're dealing with a lot of variables. There have been a lot of young guys who have come into the NHL and have their development delayed, or even nullified, because too much was asked of them too soon.

``I had a long conversation with him about it. I explained to him the spot wasn't [automatically] his. Any time you have an athlete of his skill level and competitiveness, you know it will be disappointing if he doesn't make it. It's early. Let's see."

Kessel can't wait. Doesn't want to. He's been planning his whole life for this, and it has wounded him deeply that his reputation has suffered in recent months.

``The tough part for me was these people don't know you, but they assume things," he said. ``I'm a little more uptight now from it. You know, more guarded. I'm not a big hoopla guy anyway."

He has tried to do everything right. On game days, he wears his new brown suit. He defers to the veterans, asks lots of questions.

``The guys have been incredible," he gushed. ``They talk to me all the time. They make me feel part of it."

When he reported to rookie camp and saw Murray and Bergeron lingering to study his game, he made sure when his sessions were over, he retreated to the stands to watch the veterans do their thing.

``He was the only one who did that," Chiarelli said. ``He's carried himself very well. He's been under the radar, and the vets appreciate that."

There will be cuts made in the days ahead. Kessel will not be one of them. This is not a scenario where if the Bruins feel he isn't ready, they will be forced to send him back to juniors for the season. Nor is it a situation in which Kessel must clear waivers if he needs to make a trip to Providence if it all becomes overwhelming.

The Bruins need Phil Kessel as much as he needs them. He will score goals. He will sell tickets. He will get the puck to the Murrays and the Marco Sturms and he will make them look good. Then he will put on his new brown suit and try to do it again the next day, in a new NHL city.

And maybe -- just maybe -- he will prove to all those people who passed on him that he is growing up after all.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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