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A Tribute to Phil

Phil Kessel is no longer a Penguin, but he provided us some great moments during his time in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins Victory Parade And Rally Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Where were you when...

I can’t recall the exact details of what I was doing at the time, but I do remember seeing that tweet and being in a state of shock mixed with some excitement while at the same time trying to confirm this news was coming from actual Bob McKenzie not a spoof account that makes its rounds during free agency.

It’s hard to believe that trade was four years ago, but time sure does fly when you’re having fun, and we had a lot of fun during Kessel’s time in Pittsburgh. Now Kessel has been shipped out of town to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and his time with the Penguins has come to an end. All in all, I think everyone will agree that the Kessel era will stay with us for a long time.

NHL Standard career statistics
Scoring Goals Assists Shots Ice Time
2015-16 28 PIT NHL 82 26 33 59 9 18 22 4 0 5 20 13 0 274 9.5 479 1507 18:23 2 3 40.0 13 9 26 55
2016-17 29 PIT NHL 82 23 47 70 3 20 15 8 0 4 25 22 0 229 10.0 407 1471 17:56 5 10 33.3 15 12 15 51 Byng-44
2017-18 30 PIT NHL 82 34 58 92 -4 36 22 12 0 6 28 30 0 261 13.0 449 1532 18:41 6 13 31.6 17 10 26 60 AS-3
2018-19 31 PIT NHL 82 27 55 82 -19 28 15 12 0 10 31 24 0 215 12.6 370 1474 17:59 4 5 44.4 18 12 33 78 Byng-49
4 yrs PIT NHL 328 110 193 303 -11 102 74 36 0 25 104 89 0 979 11.2 1705 5985 18:15 17 31 35.4 63 43 100 244
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/3/2019.

When he first came over, the franchise was at a crossroads and the outlook was pretty bleak to say the least. Thankfully, that cloud hanging over the franchise was soon lifted and Kessel was a major reason for that transformation. In addition to the Patric Hornqvist trade a year earlier, this move set the wheels in motion for what was yet to come for the Penguins. Even with the overall dissatisfaction with the team at the time, brining in Kessel signaled to fans they were serious about making necessary changes to win again.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing at first as the Penguins began 2015-16 in a serious rut that led to the firing of Mike Johnston and subsequent hiring of Mike Sullivan. Things slowly improved and I probably don’t need to remind you of what happened next.

Kessel was arguably the Penguins best player during that 2016 Cup run and probably should have been awarded the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP but that’s a discussion for another time. This also launched the popular “Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion” meme which will live on in eternity.

That run also brought us the famed ‘HBK’ line that featured Kessel with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. They had all-world chemistry down the stretch and through the playoffs, scoring the overtime goal in Game 6 to defeat the Washington Capitals and a whole host of other huge moments.

If 2016 was fun, then 2017 was twice as nice when the Penguins repeated as champions, giving Kessel two rings in his first two years with the team. He once again lit up the box score during the playoffs, recording 23 points in 25 games, one point better than his 2016 output. It also gave us one of the great Phil moments during the Eastern Conference Finals when cameras caught him giving teammates an earful on the bench.

He capped everything off during his day with the Cup that August, creating one of the single best picture/troll job you could ever dream.

This is of course in reference to rumors pushed by an unnamed Toronto sports columnist who accused Phil of enjoying a few too many hot dogs during his time with the Maple Leafs. The unnamed Toronto sports columnist was not happy with the picture.

While it would have been nice to add a third (or fourth) Stanley Cup title to Phil’s resume while with the Penguins, it wasn’t meant to be. In 2018, they fell to the eventual champion Capitals in the second round after beating them the previous two years. The audacity of the Penguins to not win three straight Stanley Cup titles meant there needed to be a scapegoat for their failure. Turns out the scapegoat was Kessel.

This is of course when the trade rumors began to first swirl regarding Kessel and they only continued as time went along. They reached a fever pitch this past April when the Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. Another disappointing end turned those rumors into an actual proposed trade with the Wild that Kessel rejected. Even though general manager Jim Rutherford threw water on the “Trade Phil” fire, it seemed inevitable that a split was coming. On June 29th, the Penguins traded Kessel to the Coyotes.

Overall, it’s safe to say Phil had a pretty successful four years in a Penguins uniform. He gave you everything every time he stepped on the ice, even if it didn’t look that way at times. He never missed a game, playing in all 328 games while recording 303 points, good for second on the team during that four year stretch.

In a way, this move was always coming, it just depended on when the Penguins were willing to pull the trigger. When Kessel initially came over it was already believed he would not finish out his remaining contract with the Penguins, it was just a temporary stay.

That doesn’t make this any easier to digest at the moment though. Kessel played a vital role in the rejuvenation of the Penguins franchise and helped save the Crosby/Malkin era in the process. There are too many highlights to pack into one piece celebrating his time with the Penguins, but the big ones will always stick out.

Kessel came to Pittsburgh seemingly with a chip on his shoulder after how he was treated by the media in Toronto. He did more than acquit himself as one of the best players in the league while here, and he was unquestionably a fan favorite and will continue to be. When you return to PPG Paints Arena next season, you won’t see #81 on the ice for the Penguins, but those banners from 2016 & 2017 will still hang as the real testament to his legacy in Pittsburgh. A legacy we should be forever grateful for.

Thanks for everything you did, Phil. It won’t soon be forgotten. Best of luck in Arizona.