Phil Kessel burst onto the national scene when he was 16-years-old with a breakout performance at the 2005 World Junior Championships, which was otherwise dominated by NHL ready superstars Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin. Kessel has been one of the most prolific scorers in the post-modern NHL era (since 2005 lockout) and has two Stanley Cups, not that Penguins fans will let anyone forget.
But is he Hall of Fame worthy?
The question was first posed to PHN by longtime Twitter follower John C. on Thursday and merited more in-depth consideration than 280 characters and a day-long Twitter argument.
The short answer is…not yet.
Kessel has a daunting task ahead of him if he wants enshrinement. To wit, American born players ahead of Kessel still aren’t in the Hall of Fame despite stellar careers. Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick were Team USA stalwarts, NHL All-Stars and highly marketable players in their respective cities. Yet their name does not appear on the guestbook in Toronto.
Roenick notched 1216 points with 513 goals in his career. Tkachuk racked up 538 goals.
Kessel’s resume thus far is substantial. Two Stanley Cups, including a starring role on the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins team which laid waste to their competition during a dominant Cup run. Last season, he scored a career-high 92 points with 34 goals, his sixth time scoring more than 30.
Kessel also played better hockey than he has for most of his career, which is an important note.
Kessel has 330 career goals and 741 career points in 914 games. He figures to cross the 1000 points mark, but he’ll need to maintain his current scoring pace for three to four more seasons to do so.
The knocks on Kessel ring deep in inner hockey circles. He doesn’t play enough defense. He avoids contact. In the Canadian controlled Hall of Fame, those are not insignificant criticisms. Kessel also has not won any major awards.
To make the Hall, Kessel will need to do several things. First, he’ll need to score more than 500 goals. While Kessel has been a top goal scorer in this generation, he will need to score at least 30 goals for the next five seasons to get close. Making that mountain even higher, he’ll be 31-years-old this October, which means his likely statistical decline will begin within a couple of seasons.
The 500-goal plateau is not a sure thing but is necessary for enshrinement. Second, Kessel will also need to surpass 1200 points, maybe more. His offensive numbers will need to outweigh the negatives, which means his stats will need to be elite.
Lastly, Kessel will need to continue changing perceptions. The 2016 Cup run was a huge statement. He quieted many critics around the league but did not silence them. The love of the Pittsburgh fan base has also helped repair Kessel’s visage (I’m fully aware any Kessel column which isn’t exclusively positive will end with grumbling, attacks, unfollows and coarse discourse).
Kessel could also change perceptions quickly by demonstrating an outward dedication to his craft. Right now, in baseball terms, he falls into the same category as home run hitters who weren’t good at defense or were a DH. The bar for his candidacy will be higher because he doesn’t bring the complete package.
He could lower the bar by doing the small things such as getting in better shape and adding more layers to his game including defense or corner work. His time as an elite scorer is coming to an end and doing those things would make him far more valuable to his team, as well.
Currently, Kessel also trails Patrick Kane as the game’s premier American scorer. Kane has nearly 100 more points (828) and as many goals (312) in nearly 100 fewer games (828). It’s not that only one American winger can make the Hall, but in 10 years when they are compared, the disparity could hurt a borderline candidacy.
So, if Kessel can post another 500 points, and 200 goals in the next six years, and continue changing perceptions, he has a legitimate chance. Roenick and Tkachuk should be in the Hall of Fame, and if he Kessel joins their statistical league, he’ll have a strong case, too.
But if he doesn’t, he’ll still have the fervent support of the Penguins fan base. He’ll live on in tales of yore, fawning memes, and Barack Obama’s congratulations for many years to come. And that’s not a bad place to be enshrined at all.