The drumbeat for changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins began this week with the four-game ouster by the New York Islanders. As opinions and analysis began fast and furious, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford enflamed the questions surrounding the Penguins future when he questioned his team’s commitment and wondered aloud if past Stanley Cups had dulled the Penguins desire to win. And a few eyes turned to Phil Kessel.
The Penguins winger who is as beloved by fans as he is productive on the power play suffered through long stretches without goals, several games which set low water marks for ice time in his Penguins career and ultimately part of the Penguins roster which went quietly against New York.
His final statistics painted a rosy picture but on Thursday as the Penguins cleaned out their lockers and said their goodbyes, Kessel acknowledged he didn’t have a good season. Wearing an all black Steelers hat, Kessel’s language also hinted about changes, too.
“I had a good run here; the last four years I’ve been here. Obviously, there’s going to be ups and downs and this year wasn’t a good one,” Kessel said.
Does anyone else find his past tense a little awkward or telling, even for the unsavvy Kessel? The wording was peculiar given the immediate firestorm which will again ignite as the playoffs come to a conclusion in June and teams finalize their direction.
For the ninth straight season, Kessel played in every game and for just the third time in his career, he averaged a point per game. Kessel banked 82 points (27g, 55a) and played in all 82 games.
Those are the good stats.
The stats which led Kessel to admit it wasn’t a good year were the minus-19, which was the third worst of his career, the sub-18 minute per game ice time which was the second lowest since 2008-09 when he fell out of favor in Boston, and the 78 giveaways which were also the third worst of his 13-year career.
“We had a lot of similar players from years past. We didn’t get it done this year. It wasn’t good enough from everyone,” Kessel said. “That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Kessel will turn 32-years-old before the puck drops next season and had three more years remaining on his contract which carries an average annual hit of $6.8 million (Toronto picks up $1.2 million of the $8 million total). Kessel’s traditionally laissez-faire defensive posture and avoidance of physical play bring his name to the fore when Rutherford called out the Penguins commitment.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also lamented the difference of the 2016 team which “was hard to play against,” and the current squad which was not. The Penguins lurch to get back to the hard-nosed, honest hockey which brought them a pair of championships is evident. Such was Sullivan’s preachings this season about defensive conscience, getting the puck to the low zone and “hanging onto pucks.”
The Penguins organization worked hard to clamp down on rumors of a Kessel deal and strife between the head coach and Kessel last summer, even as word of offers leaked to national and local media.
“Obviously, over the years the game changes and team changes. Obviously, there’s little difference throughout the years,” Kessel said. “Like I said, we’ve got have similar players (to the championship years), so we shouldn’t have had this disappointing year.”
No, the Penguins shouldn’t have stumbled to 100 points, which Rutherford admitted, “wasn’t a comfortable 100 points.” The Penguins by all accounts including theirs were finding their stride in March only to yield to New York in seemingly every phase.
Since the Penguins have five core players over 31-years-old under contract for next season and beyond, at least one figures to be moved in favor of a fresh face. Rutherford’s out loud questioning if Stanley Cups had made some players content draws a bullseye on every player not named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
And so Kessel’s phrase, “I had a good run,” is curious. You can decide the context if he expects to be dealt or not.