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Is Penguins-Phil Kessel Reunion Possible? Should it Be?



PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 15: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Phil Kessel (81) looks on during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings on December 15, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

There is a segment of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fan base — it’s not clear just how large that slice is — that appears to crave a Phil Kessel comeback here.

On some levels, that’s not surprising.

After all, Kessel was an integral part of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2016 and 2017. He skated well, scored some big goals and was a sensational playmaker.

And, perhaps no less important, he did it all while looking as much like an Everyman as anyone who has played the game.

Kessel might not have the skills required to be a plumber or auto mechanic or short-order cook, but he certainly could look the part.

But as Labor Day closes in, Kessel, who will be 36 on Oct. 2, is an unrestricted free agent, unable to secure a contract — or even a professional tryout deal — as teams are firming their rosters for the start of training camp in a few weeks.

Kessel has made his willingness to accept a secondary role known, even if that leads to the end of the NHL’s longest games-played streak. Such humility is admirable, coming from a guy with three Stanley Cup rings and 413 regular-season goals.

Perhaps there is a club for which his skills set would be a perfect fit, whose outlook he would enhance as a member of its supporting cast.

There’s little reason, however, to think that team would be the Penguins.

President of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas has devoted much of the offseason to reconstructing the Penguins’ third and fourth lines, and Kessel’s game does not fit the mold of the players Dubas has brought in.

Maybe — maybe — he could add a bit of the offense the Penguins are hoping to get from their bottom-six forwards, but that’s about it.

Just how strained Kessel’s relationship with Mike Sullivan was by the time he was traded to Arizona in 2019 might never be known — both parties insist their differences were overblown by outsiders — but it’s hard to imagine Sullivan lobbying Dubas to bring Kessel to camp.

Although sequels aren’t necessarily doomed to not work out, there are quite a few precedents of players who thrived during their initial stint with the Penguins but had a forgettable return later in their careers.

Dave Burrows, who carved out a niche as the franchise’s finest defensive defenseman to date during the first seven seasons after he was claimed from Chicago in the 1971 intra-league draft but was rather ordinary upon being reacquired from Toronto in 1980, is one example.

Kevin Stevens, the consummate power forward for most of his first eight seasons here but barely a shadow of his previous self during his second time around, is another.

Of course, how even accomplished players fared upon rejoining the Penguins would have no direct impact on how Kessel would do in a similar situation.

In his case, the cause for concern is what he has — and hasn’t — done during the past few years, as he moves through his mid-30s.

There should be no questions about his durability, since Kessel is the NHL’s all-time ironman, having appeared in 1,064 consecutive games. While he might not look like the stunt double of a Greek god, not missing a regular-season game since 2009 is irrefutable evidence of his commitment and willingness to play through the bumps and bruises that are inevitable in his job, regardless of how rarely he initiates contact or how frequently he avoids it.

It is impossible, however, to ignore the steady decline in his offensive output in recent seasons.

He has scored more than 14 goals just once in the four seasons since the Pittsburgh Penguins traded him to the Coyotes after averaging 27.5 during his four seasons here. He’s also had more than 24 assists just once during the past four seasons after averaging 48.25 with the Penguins.

But perhaps the stat that best illustrates how Kessel is not the player he once was is this: He dressed for just four of Vegas’ 22 playoff games this spring, picking up two assists while averaging 11 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time.

The Golden Knights obviously had a deep and balanced lineup — championship teams usually do — but coach Bruce Cassidy’s decision to keep Kessel in street clothes most of the time is telling, especially given Kessel’s experience in high-stakes games.

Even so, perhaps Phil Kessel still has a place in the NHL. It just isn’t with the Pittsburgh Penguins.