Phil Kessel is the third rail of the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase. Criticism is not tolerated. Lukewarm praise is called out with a stream of emails, tweets filled with statistics, and those who do not abide feel the wrath.
By his own admission, Kessel didn’t have a good season.
The Penguins right winger is an enigmatic sort who seemingly disappeared for large portions of the season only to emerge with another point-per-game season, his second-best point total in eight seasons (last season was his best), all 82 games played, and he led the league in game-winning goals (10).
Yet there is little doubt he did not have a good season.
Report card analysis of Kessel’s game is more of an essay test grade than a multiple choice because his game is so different from nearly every other NHL player. He finished with the eighth fewest hits among players who played at least 50 games, ahead of Johnny Gaudreau and Kyle Connor. His 55 turnovers at even strength ranked 20th among forwards. And he was a terrible minus-19 on a team which had a positive goal differential.
He also scored 82 points.
Phil Kessel’s sole purpose is to create offense. He is now less of the sniper that he was just a few years ago and more of a playmaker than anyone expected. The Penguins power play usually runs through Kessel on the dots and was again statistically successful this season and finished fifth in the NHL with a 24.6% conversion rate 56 goals (7th NHL).
But an objective analysis of Kessel’s game and season always includes a large BUT. I like big buts, I cannot lie.
Phi Kessel Report Card: C-
“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 on locker cleanout day.
Kessel scored 27 goals and 55 assists which are high water marks and proud achievements for most players.
However, head coach Mike Sullivan delivered a trio of low ice time nights to send a message to the winger, which were the lowest ice times of his Penguins career. He didn’t crack 12 minutes in one December night in Carolina.
And therein lays the impact of Kessel on the team. He is an $8 million man and part of the team’s core but his game became incongruent with the Penguins scheme. Kessel does not hang onto pucks and he isn’t tough to play against. His puck support and defensive awareness were suspect, which helped to create a crater in the middle of the Penguins lineup.
Style vs. Game
Kessel wants to play on the rush. He’s been very successful for a long time with that strategy. Sadly, the rub is that the game has caught up. Those rush opportunities were not as available, especially not as he wanted them. Now, the rush is almost exclusively created by a transition from the defensive zone and that takes five players; the “five-man unit”.
We’ll rehash for those who missed PHN’s analysis this season (welcome newbies!), the game changed sharply this season. It was the culmination of most teams adopting the speed element, then incorporating a scheme around it. The Penguins advantage, and thus several players advantages dissipated.
Kessel, like at least one other, struggled to adapt.
Make no mistake, the Penguins suffered for most of the season from a hole in their middle lines. The coaches alluded to it and bluntly said it, too. Kessel and center Evgeni Malkin shot out of the gate. Kessel was on pace for his best season ever and had his best October, too. However, things went wrong when opponents began to tighten up after the first 20 games.
Kessel and Malkin were split because of schematic and defensive indifference. Kessel didn’t work with center Derick Brassard, either. That duo wasn’t just bad, it was painful to watch. The numbers would only distract from the trainwreck which it was.
The problem wasn’t that Kessel didn’t work with Brassard, or that Brassard didn’t work with Kessel. The problem was the obvious lack of effort which crept into the line. PHN chronicled the game-to-game deficiencies. Kessel could be seen standing along the opposite boards in spectator mode. Brassard once returned the favor.
Eventually, coaches relented and paired Kessel with Malkin again. They essentially isolated the two players who wanted to play their own game from the rest of the team.
Jack Johnson’s Fault!
For those who pay special attention to analytics, Kessel was below 50% in Corsi, shots, scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. The refrain from much of the Kessel crowd likes to blame defenseman Jack Johnson for his lack of puck movement. But…
Let’s debunk that myth here and now: When on the ice together, Johnson and Kessel had a 44% Corsi. Terrible. When not on the ice together, Kessel went up to 48% and Johnson went up to 47%.
And the deathblow to that fallacy: Johnson played over 1300 minutes at even strength, but only 400 with Kessel. Kessel played over 1100 minutes and only 400 with Johnson. Let’s declare that myth false.
So, moving on from blaming others, we can divine from the above stats and a lot of eye tests, that Johnson’s puck-moving was exacerbated by Kessel’s lack of defensive zone presence and Kessel’s desire to play the game on the rush clashed with the scheme and opponents.
It would seem to dissect Kessel’s nearly two-month even strength goal slump and the spate of shorthanded goals against for which he was a large contributor would be piling on Kessel’s disappointing season.
“We lack a defensive conscience,” Sullivan repeatedly said of his power-play unit.
And that’s the story of Kessel’s season. He shined in bursts. And the spotlight shined on him in the wrong moments, too. Kessel’s minus-19 stands in stark contrast to the rest of the team, as the Penguins had a +32 goal differential. The difference is almost unbelievable.
The Penguins needed more and Kessel had more to give. C-.