Phil Kessel is coming off of a nearly Conn Smythe-worthy playoff performance and is looking to hit the ground running in his second season as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The only thing hindering Kessel at this point is a hand injury that required off-season surgery and is yet to fully heal.
According to Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, Kessel is progressing well in his recovery, but uncertainty still surrounds his ability to return in time for opening night of the 2016-17 campaign. Speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey, Rutherford said Kessel is “tracking” in the right direction, but that doesn’t guarantee his readiness for the season.
“With surgery like that, you can’t say 100 percent for sure,” Rutherford said, according to Mackey. “Even if it’s not for the start of the season, it wouldn’t be that much time.”
The specifics of the injury aren’t known, but Kessel has reportedly been dealing with the injury for some time. According to Mackey, the injury nagged Kessel throughout the past season, which could help explain why the five-time 30-goal scorer wasn’t able to crack the 30-goal plateau on a team with such a high-powered offense.
If Kessel can’t play in the season-opener, it would be the first game Kessel has missed in six seasons. He played in all but 12 games during his six-year tenure as a Toronto Maple Leaf and played every game this past season for the Penguins.
The second season in Pittsburgh could prove to be a big one for Kessel, who disappointed early in his first season with the Penguins. At the start of January, Kessel had a mere 11 goals and 21 points in 37 games, which is a serious downturn in production given he was only two years removed from a 37-goal, 80-point season with the Maple Leafs. Kessel picked it up in the back half of the campaign, though, scoring 15 goals and 38 points over the course of the remaining 45 games. Only Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby contributed more than Kessel over that period.
It was Kessel’s second-half production that made his absence from the Team USA World Cup roster so puzzling, especially given his 10 goals and 22 points led the Penguins on their march to the Stanley Cup. But whether intentional or not, Kessel being left off of the World Cup roster simply saved some time for the American squad. Rutherford told Mackey that even if Kessel would have been named to the club, he would have had to watch from home.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.