The Phil Kessel trade-or-not was the saga of the summer surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite being a driving force helping to win two Stanley Cups in his first two seasons, then scale great individual heights scoring 174 total points in his latter two seasons in Pittsburgh, it was Kessel deemed the player to be sacrificed in the name of changing up a clearly stagnant roster that flamed out with a first round playoff sweep last spring.
That decision led to strong feelings in many different directions, most of them justified. There was anger that Kessel, a productive and skilled player, was pinned with media blame, unnecessarily making a scapegoat out of a really good player due to his personality or quirks. There was wonderment (a lot here) how the Pens could negotiate Kessel’s restrictive partial-but-mostly-complete no trade clause. There was hope that dropping him could refresh a team that needed it.
In some ways, there’s no point of re-legislating all of those feelings, even if Kessel’s return to Pittsburgh today will bring them to the surface.
In a sense, the Pens were wise to move on from a 32-year old winger whose game was built on speed that will naturally be declining, and to some extent probably already has. To that end, there’s even a perverse satisfaction or justification of the Kessel trade in some quarters based on his unimpressive four goal, 15 point start with the Coyotes before he scoring two goals last night against the Flyers.
“I’ve had good looks,” Kessel told The Athletic. “I’m just missing them. That’s the honest truth. If I’m getting those normally, I’d say at least a third or half of them go in. Right now, it’s off.”
It’s more than just Phil, it’s the players around him. The Coyotes score at 5v5 when Kessel is on the ice at 5v5 on just 4.6% of their shots. In four years in Pittsburgh that number was nearly consistently double at 8.8%, 8.4%, 8.7% and 8.7%. That’s how a guy who ends up recording 55 assists last year and 58 the season before ends up on a pace for just 30 this season. Not because he’s gotten old or dropped off by 50%, but because he isn’t surrounded by the same level of talent to convert on opportunities.
Kessel is also motivated to play for Rick Tocchet due to a personal bond formed between the two in Pittsburgh. He’s played through a groin injury but knows he has to play better.
“I want to play well for him,” Kessel said. “The most important part is you want to win and we are competing and winning, but for me personally, he’s my buddy. I know he wanted me here and I came here to try to win, to do the best I can for him. It hasn’t happened yet.”
When Kessel told Tocchet the same thing recently, Tocchet had a reassuring reply.
“I told him, ‘I would do the trade again in a second,’” Tocchet said. “I think he has added a lot to our team on and off the ice. Yeah, he’s missed the net a few times, missed a few chances and we need him, but I’m not worried about him. We’re a couple points out of first and he has stayed positive.”
That may have even started last night with a breakout scoring two goals.
For the Pens though, life without Kessel hasn’t been an improvement, it’s just been different. Their major trade return, Alex Galchenyuk, has looked lost most of the season and only scored two goals himself. Both players have been similarly looking for improvements, funny enough.
One spot Pittsburgh is definitely missing Kessel is on the power play
- 2015-16: 18.4% (16th place in NHL), Kessel 17 power play points
- 2016-17: 23.1% (3rd), 30 PPP
- 2017-18: 26.2% (1st), 42 PPP
- 2018-19: 24.6% (5th), 36 PPP
- 2019-20: 15.7% (23rd place)
Overall, with Kessel “quarterbacking” the powerplay — that is to say chiefly responsible for breakouts and then directing traffic with the flow of the puck from his customary spot on the left wall — the Pens had a 23.0% power play rate from 2015-16 to 2018-19, best in league.
Pittsburgh has suffered some injuries, which will take them artificially below where they belong, but they no longer were likely to have a best-in-league power play without Kessel and his 36 PPP average over the last three seasons.
In the end, Kessel fit Pittsburgh well as they did for him for a time. Each side, be it the teams involved or the players switching haven’t really benefited from this specific transaction a few months into the season. That could change, but as Kessel makes his return trip to Pittsburgh, a trip accurately described by him and several Pens players as a “weird” event, the strange ending to a strange saga is no one is really all that better off for not being able to figure out how to make the personalities mesh well enough to continue a championship winning arrangement.