Phil Kessel doesn’t care what you think. Doesn’t care if you think he’s dogging it. Doesn’t care about your thoughts on his body language, your thoughts on what he should be saying in postgame media scrums. Doesn’t care at all.
That might’ve been a problem for some in Toronto, for those who were not a fan of his flippant attitude toward the media, his perceived lack of competitive fire.
His teammates didn’t care. They knew better. They knew the real Phil.
“He’s just a straight-shooter,” Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly says. “He’s not a bad guy at all. His friends know that, but I think [the media] tried to paint him that way a little bit. But that never really bothered him, and I think the fact that he wasn’t bothered by it really bothered the media. Because they wanted it to. But he just lived his life.”
And now, Kessel can step out of that Toronto glare and into some fresh air, getting a golden parachute from perennial scapegoat to savior. At the start of free agency in July, he was traded to Pittsburgh for Nick Spaling, prospects and draft picks. It’s a move, Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford says, that will let Phil simply be Phil.
“He was put in as tough a situation as an athlete can be put in, in Toronto,” says Rutherford. “He was part of a big trade [from Boston to the Leafs in 2009] going to the biggest hockey market in the world. He just was under such a microscope. I’m not sure anybody could handle that situation. That’s behind him. He’s put in a totally different situation, which I believe will be very good for him and the team.”
Kessel, 28, now gets to suit up next to Sidney Crosby, a match potentially made in black-and-gold heaven. He will be the beneficiary of accurate passes and increased space on the ice, a perk of playing with No. 87. Crosby will get to play with an elite winger, something that hasn’t happened often in his 10 seasons in Pittsburgh.
With an elite scorer like Kessel—only four players have scored more since 2009—in the fold, the rest of the lineup gets a boost, necessary for a team that ranked 19th in goals scored last season. Despite the big names, Pittsburgh struggled in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Rangers not only due to injuries on the backend, but because of the Pens’ inability to score. In the five games of that series, Pittsburgh scored more than one goal just once.
“We already have good players,” Rutherford said. “We have superstars. He’s going to be put in a different situation. He doesn’t have to be the guy every night. On top of that we added other forwards; [Sergei] Plotnikov, [Eric] Fehr, [Nick] Bonino, [Matt] Cullen. We put so much more depth in our forward lines, a lot more balance. We should be able to win games [in] different ways now.”
They’ve already shown they can win games in different ways, albeit only in preseason action. In their first preseason game, Crosby and Kessel were paired together, along with left wing Chris Kunitz. It didn’t take long for the trio to hit it off. Late in the first period, with Crosby holding the puck in the high slot, he rifled a pass to Kunitz, who promptly fired it to a streaking Kessel down the middle. All Kessel had to do was tap it in. On the second goal, with Kessel again screaming down the slot, Crosby slid the puck through U.S. Olympian and Carolina Hurricanes defender Justin Faulk. Once again, all Kessel had to do was just tip it in.
We’ll see if this trio continues to play with creativity, skill and success. But the good thing for Pittsburgh is that it’s no longer just the Crosby and Malkin show. Add Kessel to a mix of forwards like Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist and David Perron, and the punchless Penguins now have a lot of firepower.
Kessel may score 50 goals with Crosby—as Malkin predicted at the NHL Player Media Tour in Toronto in September. Or the pairing could fizzle. In that case, Kessel would likely look quite nice playing on a line with Malkin.