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Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel: the best linemates who never were

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Their styles are a bit oil and water but Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel are too good not to try together

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Phil Kessel was acquired in a trade from Toronto in 2015, the first questions and imaginations were sparked about how he would fare on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Would Phil score 40 goals in a season? Or even 50?

But, as it turned out, Crosby and Kessel almost never played together. From 2015-16 to current, Crosby has played almost 4,000 minutes. But he was only with Kessel for 395 of them or only about 10% of the time.

The reason? Mostly seemed like a styles clash.

Picture the perfect and tried-and-true Sidney Crosby winger. Someone who can mesh with Sid’s “down low” style of offense; great along the boards, excellent at working cycle plays with the puck, willing and able to win puck battles, drive to the net, overpower opponents in traffic, fight through checks, anticipate how to get open and be ready for passes at all times. Players fearless on the forecheck but capable at backchecking too.

Most of these traits are why Chris Kunitz once scored 35 goals in a season. Or why Pascal Dupuis would have gotten 30+ if 2012-13 wasn’t a lockout year. Those guys were made for Sidney Crosby. It’s also why Marian Hossa scored 26 points in 20 playoff games in 2008 and would have been such an ideal match for Crosby had he chosen to stay in Pittsburgh since he had a Hall of Fame caliber talent but a style that meshed with a grinder like Crosby.

Phil Kessel isn’t a natural fit for Crosby. When you think Phil Kessel, you think a guy rocketing down the right side of the ice and firing the puck on the rush. Making great passes. A player who “lurks” in the weeds a little bit, only to pop up and do damage. But also one who can go quiet in between great shifts and not really be visible for periods of time.

Phil and Sid though have some secret, built-in chemistry, though. It’s on the power play. Of Crosby’s 867 minutes on the PP from 2015-2018, Kessel has been out there 788 of them - almost an inverse of their never playing together at 5-on-5. So the two are definitely familiar with each other’s tendencies.

Or as Sid put it last night, “we’ve played together long enough that we know how to play together.”

The Penguins’ power play has thrived since Kessel’s addition. Phil has also taken over as a focus of the group, often times running the puck control from his customary spot on the half-wall. This move has allowed Crosby to be more dynamic - he doesn’t have to be glued to the right side wall any more, he is free to hang out by the goal or skate to space for passes.

Crosby and Kessel worked last night, and though they have different playing styles, there is an undeniable amount of hockey sense that both have, as all great players have.

“Phil’s really smart,” Crosby said after the game last night. “He always, always knows where to go. He knows when to go to the net. I thought he was really good tonight. We generated some good chances together.”

The chances hit the back of the net twice, including this easy goal for Kessel.

“I got a couple of tap-ins from Sid,” Kessel said with his typical ‘aw shucks’ bravado. “It’s nice to get those, right?”

It is nice, but it’s no mistake. Where does Kessel even come from in the above? Watch again and iso just on him at the top of the screen. Phil was behind the net, he sees Crosby getting the puck and Kessel emerges around the far side, quickly presenting a target that Sid isn’t going to miss with a pass. It’s a tap-in goal, but it only happens because Phil is reading the play and able suddenly show up on the doorstep.

Interestingly enough, Crosby acknowledged that the team had heard the rumblings that Kessel’s trade value may have been floated around by the Pens. If Kessel’s 2 goal, 2 assist performance last night didn’t squash those rumors dead in their tracks, the captain pretty demonstrably did.

“There’s always going to be talk,” Crosby said. “And there’s always going to be some things said outside of this room, the kind of stuff that we don’t really have any control over. All I know is, we appreciate all the things he brings to this team. We definitely appreciate all the things he can do for us. Look at what he does, look at how much he produces, how dangerous he can be every night.”

No one is going to confuse Phil Kessel for a two-way player like Hossa. Or a mad dog on the backcheck like Dupuis. Or a board-battler supreme with the ability to fight traffic like Kunitz. So Phil and Sid might be best as less than permanent linemates. However, you can’t fake or deny hockey sense, and if the Pens find themselves needing a jolt or wanting to create scoring chances it’s not a bad idea to pair 87+81 more at 5v5 and see what they can do.