In the event that Phil Kessel was nostalgic for his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette recently provided some comfort food. For it had been a while since a local columnist suggested that Phil Kessel will, and should, be traded.
“I believe Phil Kessel will be traded. It might not happen this week or this month or even this offseason. But I believe it will happen sooner rather than later,” wrote Cook.
The departure of assistant coach Rick Tocchet, credited with getting through to Kessel like few have, was one factor. His contract, paying him $6.8 million against the cap through his 35th birthday, was another. His chemistry with his linemates, his relationship with head coach Mike Sullivan and the impressions he’s made on upper management filled out the prosecution’s case in Cook’s piece.
I’ve asked around the Pittsburgh media, and the consensus is that this is “informed speculation” from Cook, i.e. someone associated with the Penguins planted these seeds and up sprouted some controversy, whether or not there’s validity to it.
(There was also one journalist that said Cook was doing boosterism for Tocchet’s legacy, so make of that what you will.)
Naturally, this comes after a season where Kessel’s goal total slipped (23) but his points-per-game average (0.85) was his highest since 2014; and it comes after a postseason in which he had 23 points in 25 games but had a quiet Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators with one goal and three assists, skating on a line with Evgeni Malkin, who had three goals and one assist, but hey who’s counting?
“My belief is Evgeni Malkin wasn’t thrilled to play on the same line with Kessel. And Sidney Crosby? Sullivan acknowledged Crosby and Kessel have no chemistry together. None,” wrote Cook.
(The numbers bear this out, by the way, as Kessel has played with six other forwards more than he’s played with Crosby in the last two years, including David Perron. You can say this is for the sake of offensive balance. You can also say he was acquired with Sid’s wing in mind, and never established a permanence there.)
“It’s no secret that Kessel often drives Sullivan crazy,” wrote Cook. “I’m guessing he has produced the same reaction all the way up the company ladder, from Jim Rutherford to Mario Lemieux.”
This has created the expected wagon-circling.
Outside of P.K. Subban, no one in the NHL has the protected status among fans – especially Hockey Twitter – that Kessel does. Criticize his game at your own peril. Reference any possible issues within the locker room, and you’re cast in the same trash bin as a Toronto sports columnist grinding an axe while staking out a hot dog cart.
This defensive front was justified because, for far too long, no one was standing up for Kessel. He was a scapegoat and an easy target, and the fan community was way ahead of the curve in appreciating and supporting his talents and personality, singular as they are.
That said: Anyone that’s spent a modicum of time around the Penguins – like, say, during their playoff runs – has heard some of what Cook is peddling.
About how important Tocchet, now the coach of the Arizona Coyotes, was to running interference between Sullivan and Kessel. About Kessel’s inconsistent work ethic, which is chalked up to Phil being Phil. About how working with Phil can be laborious, to the point where he began one of his ultra-rare media appearances the Stanley Cup Final by basically saying “they made me do this.”
This stuff adds up over time, but here’s the thing about winning: No one really cares what it all amounts to when you’re on your second straight Stanley Cup, and especially when Kessel was one of the primary reasons you had your first one.
There’s evidence that the Penguins aren’t anywhere near trading Kessel “soon.”
That notion runs counter to one of their most recent hires: Mark Recchi, who is replacing Rick Tocchet on the bench. Sullivan, whom you’ll remember Kessel has slowly driven mad, acknowledged that bringing Recchi speaks directly to what they want from Phil.
“Specifically speaking with Phil, he already has a great relationship with Phil,” Sullivan said, via the Tribune Review. “We’ve used Rex over the last couple of seasons with Phil to try to help him grow his game and develop his game in different areas where we were trying to help Phil. I think Rex is going to be a seamless transition.”
Which is, again, not the type of thing you hear from a coach that’s preparing for Life Without Phil.
Look, if the standard is that Kessel needs to score goals to justify his salary, which is the one Cook set, then it wasn’t completely justified last season. Part of that was the dissolution of the HBK Line – which is what happens when your center, Nick Bonino, goes from 2.53 goals per 60 minutes at 5v5 to 1.87 in the span of a year – and part of that were the 45 fewer shots on goal Kessel took vs. 2015-16.
But again, we have Cook writing “Kessel has to score goals to help the Penguins,” and he was three regular-season goals and two playoff goals lighter this year than last year.
Winning a Stanley Cup in both, of course.
Should Phil Kessel be traded? Of course not.
He’s a 29-year-old sniper who also create plays, with a 70-point season in 2016-17. Even if there are people around the Penguins whispering to columnists that “the organization wasn’t thrilled with Kessel,” the team is trumpeting the hiring of an assistant coach as a further boon to Phil’s production and growth at the same time.
Will he eventually be traded? Well, sure.
At $6.8 million, players inching past their prime are usually on the move as teams filter cash to younger long-term assets, no matter how beloved. See also: Fleury, Marc-Andre.
So when does he go? Perhaps when his base salary drops to $6 million in 2020 and Rick Tocchet is coaching the Stanley Cup champion Arizona Coyotes and they’re in a lovely new arena in Phoenix and he tells a crusty old general manager named John Chayka, ‘Get me Phil.’
Or perhaps not.
I don’t think this is the first step to Phil being run out of town anytime soon. I think these balloons are always being floated around him, in Toronto and now in Pittsburgh, because he’s different and not everyone likes different. Sometimes the media reaches up and decides to play with one of those balloons. They’re colorful but, ultimately, just more of the same hot air.
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