Phil Kessel and that one footed wrist shot which drove goalies crazy.
It’s has been more than six weeks since Phil Kessel scored an even strength goal. For all of the praise and catharsis two weeks ago when Kessel finally broke a 16-game goalless drought, nearly half of Kessel’s goals have been this season it was a power play marker. Kessel’s bottom line looks great which has masked the problems he and the Penguins face, especially now without superstar center Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup week-to-week.
The Penguins need more from Kessel.
“Geez, I just scored one goal,” Kessel sarcastically joked when a throng of media gathered around his locker stall after he finally scored on Mar. 7, his first goal since Jan. 30.
His goal that night, like his last couple of goals were on the power play. Kessel hasn’t lit the lamp at even strength since that Jan. 30 goal against Tampa Bay. This season, Kessel as 73 points, including 24 goals in 73 games. However, his point distribution is an unhealthy 44 percent split between even strength and the man advantage.
Kessel has struggled mightily with even strength production this season. With only 13 even strength goals and nine games remaining, he is in danger of scoring his fewest even strength goals in a full season since 2007-08 (14).
The reasons for the struggles closely mirror those of friend and frequent linemate Evgeni Malkin. Kessel’s lack of even strength offense is not because a lack of effort or lack of surrounding talent. No, the game is rapidly changing and Kessel is caught against the stream.
Kessel hasn’t lost a step. The game has gained a step. Maybe two.
Those one-footed wristers from the right wing circle which was Kessel’s signature, much like an artful Sidney Crosby backhand or Patric Hornqvist deflection, require speed and separation from the defensemen. For a decade, Kessel was able to get a step or three on defensemen and have a clear shot at the goalie from the circle.
Kessel’s wrist shot is as deceptive as it is fast.
Now, at full speed, Kessel is confronted with a defenseman in the way. Those scoring chances just aren’t there in the same way they have always been. And just like Malkin’s struggles which unfolded earlier in the season, Kessel is faced with the task of adapting his game to the evolving NHL at 31-years-old.
The game, or at least the Penguins and teams in the Metro Division, are moving to a harder game with puck possession below the dots. The Penguins especially are asking for simple plays, short passes, and honest hockey.
None of those play to Kessel’s game, at least as he has played for the first 13 years. Defensemen are back into the zone. Opponents are more schematic and have more players back to the defensive zone to confront Kessel at the blue line.
That’s why you see more blue line turnovers; Kessel, like Malkin, is being attacked in areas of the rink which have not been defended as aggressively before.
Kessel already has 63 turnovers which are the third most in his career and worst since 2013-2014.
Kessel is being forced into a simple game despite all of his instincts. The results have been inconsistent, even within the same game. His performance at 5v5 with Teddy Blueger was solid, Sunday night. However, his in a twist, his power play work was full of turnovers and missed plays.
Kessel’s play this season has received muted criticism from fans and less from the Penguins. Head coach Mike Sullivan knows criticism could worsen Kessel’s performance. Without Malkin for a couple weeks or more and in the thick of the playoff chase, the Penguins need more from Kessel, now.
More puck possession, more simple plays, a bit more defense and believe it or not, more finish.
It might be now or never.