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Netflix and Phil: Kessel and the Mystery of Clutch

Kessel has been huge for the Penguins this season. But could you call Kessel as a Penguin a "clutch" player. Well...that all depends...

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

July 1st, 2015

The Pittsburgh Penguins made the biggest move of the 2015-2016 NHL season, sending Scott Harrington, Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling, and 2016 first and third round draft picks for Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon, and Phil Kessel. I, for one, was thrilled. Phil was my favorite non-Penguin player and I'm not sure how many worthless Maple Leaf games I've watched over the years just to watch him play.

Immediately, the trade was met with cheers from Penguin fans and jeers from everyone else.

Penguin Fans: Is it possible to go 82-0? Is 60 goals a reasonable expectation for Phil to score??? When he wins his second Conn Smythe in a row should he send a crate of hot dogs to Steve Simmons' house?  Maybe Phil can finally shake 'em all off.

Everyone else: Fat Fat Fat Fat Fat, lazy, hot dogs, Fat fat fat fat fat overrated fat.

But here was the reality. Phil left a tough situation in Toronto to come to Pittsburgh where they struggled with knowing where to put him all season until the Swedish god Carl Hagelin showed up and the HBK line was born.

But, before this season the knock on Kessel has always been the same: that he does not perform to meet his talent level. That when it comes down to it, while he puts up big numbers, is he really a player that you can depend on?

Which leads us to an important question.

We spend an awful lot of time talking about clutch hockey players. As Penguin fans, we are susceptible every year to a national writer or two taking a shot at Sid for how long its been since he has won the Cup and how he's not a leader or if he is one, he's a crappy leader that can't win an important game. Just imagine what it's like to be a Caps fan this time of year. Or a Sharks fan.

This idea of clutch is and always has been a completely undefinable concept, not just in hockey. Quarterbacks in football, pitchers in baseball, and LeBron James have always been subjected to this idea of clutch. We have stats for NBA players in the last two minutes and in the playoffs that represent clutch.

But, what if clutch is totally a phantom? And if it is, could players that have always seemed to not be clutch be more effective than we have imagined.

Two years ago, the guys over at investigated the idea of clutch in the NHL. And while it is a lot of stat talk and math, neither of which I am very good at, what the authors essentially looked for was patterns in one goal games in the NHL on the team level since the lockout of 2005. Basically, there was no relation between goal differential and winning percentage in close games (close games being defined as a win.loss by one goal). This lead the authors to the following three conclusions:

  1. Good teams do not play in close games because they are ... well ... better than winning a game by one goal.
  2. Bad teams do play in close games, and are more likely to be subjected to the randomness that is the results of a one-goal game.

Flash forward to this years Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens were 48-26-8 on the season, and they were 16-14 in one goal games. Which means that they were 32-20 in games decided by more than one goal. They are 5-3 in one goal games in the playoffs (thank you Capitals series, where all four Pens wins were by one goal, for wearing on my nerves), and now 6-3 in games decided by more than one goal. These are good winning percentages for a good team.

Which leads us to our original point. If a good team does not play close games and thus does not play in close games of which the outcome is quite random, does the same work for the players involved. And if it does, does this mean that a player like Phil Kessel could be a clutch player without being in clutch situations here in Pittsburgh.

Than answer is quite surprising.

Using an old fashion and logical statistic, game winning goals, Phil had six this season. Joe Pavelski lead the league with 11. Kessel's teammate, a certain Sidney Crosby, lead the team with nine. Overall, Phil is 31st among active players in GWG with 45, only 88 behind active and all-time leader, Jaromir Jagr.

But let's break this one down by team situation. More specifically, since the Pens were a good team and were not put that often in "clutch" situations, lets compare Kessel's performance in games that the Pens won by one goal and games where the Pens won by two or more.

On the year, Phil played in all 82 games, scoring 26 goals and 33 assists, averaging out to .71 points per game. In the Penguins 33 wins of two goals or more, including the playoffs and last night, Kessel scored 20 goals and had 19 assists, which averages out to 1.2 points per game. To give you some perspective, Crosby had 20 goals and 23 assists, averaging out to 1.38 points per game.

In the Pens 16 one-goal wins, also including the playoffs, Kessel scored seven goals and 12 assists, averaging out to 1.19 points per game. Crosby had 14 goals and 16 assists.

So in each scenario that one would consider a "clutch" situation, both where the Penguins have a one-goal win and a multiple-goal win, Kessel is very consistent and above his season averages. In other words, when the Pens win, Kessel plays a part, an elite level part. When they beat another team soundly, he is better than if the game is close, even though 25% of his goals this season were GWGs.

So ... with the biggest stage of his career upcoming tomorrow night in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, look for Phil Kessel to seal the deal and play a part in the Penguins possible success. Here's to him rising up and meeting that challenge.