Phil Kessel has been embraced by the city of Pittsburgh like few other athletes have. Yes, any fanbase would love to have a player of such talent on their team’s roster, but it is more than that. Kessel isn’t your average professional athlete. You won’t see the 31-year old arrive at training camp in a helicopter, or offer the media a carefully crafted answer that comes straight out of a public relations playbook.
Kessel is the ‘everyman’ in a blue-collar city; a guy that you could see yourself playing against in an adult recreational league game and then having an ‘Iron City’ with afterward. But while the two-time Stanley Cup champion may seem like an ‘average Joe’, he is capable of things on the ice that the rest of us could only dream of.
Off to a Hot Start
This season will be Kessel’s fourth in Pittsburgh, and after nine games he is off to his best start in the ‘Steel City’. Thus far he has been successful playing almost exclusively with Evgeni Malkin.
“When he plays great, I play great. When he’s lazy, I can’t do it all myself.” Malkin joking about playing with Kessel.
Kessel’s team-leading seven goals and 14 points in nine games top even last season’s start when he ended up earning 92 points. The Penguins’ winger totaled four goals and one assist in 2015-16 after nine contests, 2016-17 three goals and six assists, and 2017-18 two goals and seven assists, but his success is not limited to just points.
Last season while Kessel and Malkin played together, it was apparent that ‘Geno’ carried much of the defensive burden while the former Maple Leaf benefitted far more from the assignment than his centerman did. But this season has been a different story: when the pair is on the ice together, the Penguins control the puck 50 percent of the time. That number stays the same for Kessel when he is playing with another center, but when Malkin has different wingers, his possession numbers drop to 35 percent. However, keep in mind that the 11 minutes of five-on-five play that they have spent apart is not a large sample size.
Showing Value Beyond Goals
The Wisconsin native is showing his usual nose for the net, but he has also displayed an underrated playmaking ability. On Friday night Kessel skated down the right side while waiting patiently to dish the puck to a trailing Malkin who scored on the play. This is not an isolated incident; Kessel has shown a passing ability and creativity that often goes unnoticed. The Penguins’ sniper is far from a one-dimensional player.
With every game, the legend of Phil Kessel grows. Phil ‘The Thrill’ has the adoration of the fans, has been complimented by presidents, and being Malkin’s ‘BFF’ doesn’t hurt either.