Art Ross Trophies used to mean something to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, fans and indeed the man who owns the team, Mario Lemieux.
A Penguin has won the NHL scoring championship 15 times in the past 26 years, including six wins by Lemieux, five by Jaromir Jagr, and two each by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
It’s kind of a big thing in Pittsburgh. But, not to Phil Kessel.
“(Pffft), I have two Cups. It doesn’t matter then,” Kessel mused about the scoring trophy.
Perhaps Kessel doesn’t know you can troll the hockey world by putting hot dogs in the Art Ross Trophy, too?
“He’s a fun guy,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I don’t think he takes anything too seriously, most importantly himself.”
This season, Kessel’s general manager, Jim Rutherford, and his coach have commended his work in all three zones. Both men also credited Kessel with an improved work ethic and desire. The improvements are evident to everyone, but Kessel.
“If you play good defensively, you get good chances, and that’s a big part of our game,” said Kessel. But, he shrugged when asked if he was playing better defensively. “I don’t change anything, you know? It is what it is.”
What “it” has become is a breakout season which is laying waste to his poor reputation around the league. “It” has become Phil Kessel’s statement.
Kessel’s comfort zone remains the right-wing circle. This season, he has 66 points (24g, 42a), and exactly half have been on the Penguins juggernaut power-play. On the power play, Kessel makes plays in both circles and on the rush, but his signature is a wicked wrister from the right-wing dot.
The Art of the Race
Kessel has fallen 10 points behind Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross race. Not that it matters to Phil.
“I don’t change much. I do the same stuff, kind of go to the same spots. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Anyone else jealous of Kessel’s simple take on his job? Kessel shrugs off criticism and praise like Crosby shrugged off Anze Kopitar on Thursday night. Riley Sheahan has credited Kessel with Sheahan’s recent offensive surge. Kessel skated past Sheahan’s suggestion, too.
“Probably not,” Kessel said. “(Sheahan) is a good player. You watch him out there, he’s smart, and he’s got good offensive instincts. Now he’s using them.”
Believe it or not, Sheahan has assisted on only three of Kessel’s goals this season and only one since Nov. 25. Kessel hasn’t assisted on any of Sheahan’s markers, this season. As Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s Matt Gajtka noted yesterday, Sheahan’s puck possession recently has not been great.
On a Career Pace
Perhaps Kessel is correct to sidestep that praise like he has sidestepped defenders since his first NHL game with the Boston Bruins, in 2006.
The Penguins have 23 regular season games remaining. Kessel is on pace to smash through his career high in points (80) set in 2013-14. He also has an outside chance to break his single-season goal mark (37), which he reached twice (2011-12, 2013-14).
Even the intense Sullivan had to admit he’s come to like and admire Kessel. The coach called him “fun”.
“I think teams that are good, championship teams, there is personality on their team and (Kessel) brings one of those personalities,” Sullivan said. “He’s unique in a lot of ways but he’s a terrific player and a really good person.”
And that probably makes Penguins fans want Kessel to win it even more, but Kessel just doesn’t care.
He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion.