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Benz: Can’t Trade Phil Kessel

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Phil Kessel. By Pens Through My Lens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Benz on Pittsburgh Hockey Now is sponsored by Blush Gentleman’s Club

I guess we are all now abundantly aware that “Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion,” and no longer need the friendly reminder.

Maybe Twitter has finally reached its saturation point of wacky Phil memes & GIFs with him and catfish or hot dogs. And it looks like no one cares anymore what Pierre McGuire thinks of Phil’s breath.

Yup, it took two years but apparently in Pittsburgh having Phil Kessel on your favorite hockey team has become, well, having Phil Kessel on your favorite hockey team: So much talent. But unfortunately, so much… Phil.

The topic of potentially trading Kessel has come up lately amongst Pittsburgh hockey media and fans this week. And the reason has had little to do with Kessel, and more to do with the departure of Rick Tocchet. The former Penguins player and assistant coach just accepted the heading coaching gig in Arizona. Here, he had been credited for being the lone member of the coaching staff that could keep Kessel engaged and in step with the team’s game plan.

Now some in Pittsburgh are so concerned that, with Tocchet gone, no one will be able to coach Kessel properly and, as a result, Kessel should be traded this summer.

Phil Kessel should not be traded this offseason.

The Penguins have already lost proven playoff performers up front in Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz. Kessel has shown the ability to (at times) either mesh with Evgeni Malkin, or carry the load for his own line, thus thinning out the defensive rotations of opposing teams as we saw to great effect in the 2016 playoff run. Guys who average nearly a point per game in the postseason (45 in 49 contests as a Penguin) shouldn’t be dealt away while you are in “win now mode.” Or, in the Penguins’ fortunate example “win yet again” mode. That certainly shouldn’t be the case just because an assistant coach left. Especially when that coach has been replaced by a Hall of Famer like Mark Recchi who should also be able to manage Kessel’s peccadilloes.

Head coach Mike Sullivan is renowned for having a hard edge and demanding accountability. Phil Kessel is renowned for pretty much doing what he wants when he wants. And the narrative has become that tensions between the two could have reached a boiling point if Tocchet wasn’t there to massage the situation.

For the record, no one on the Penguins has exactly confirmed that. But no one has denied it either. When asked about the effect of Tocchet’s move in the locker room, particularly on Kessel, Sullivan said: “I think the relationship players have with the head coach is very different than the one an assistant has. That’s just reality. I’m well aware of that. … One of the things that attracted us to Mark (Recchi) is that he already has established relationships with our guys. Not just the young guys because he was the development coach. But also with some of our veteran guys. He has played with some of our veteran guys. And I think specifically speaking with Phil, he already has a great relationship. We’ve used Rex over the last couple of seasons to help Phil grow and develop his game.”

Sure, it sucks that the Penguins seem to need a designated “Kessel whisperer” coach. But Recchi seems to think he can handle the role: “Being around Sully a lot, being around the organization, I think it’s going to be a seamless fit.”

Mark Recchi has a Hall of Fame resume. If Kessel can’t make this new relationship work, that says more about Kessel than it does about Recchi.

Defending Phil Kessel against media criticism has become somewhat of a cottage industry in this town. In my experience over the last year and a half, I get more blowback from fans if I take a negative stance on Kessel after a bad game or a stretch than I do anytime I’ve been critical of Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, or even either Matt Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury.

A faction of Penguins fans seems to have formed a quasi Phil Kessel Defense Foundation on the line, in an attempt to make sure the winger isn’t overtly blamed on an individual level for team failures, as it is perceived he was in Boston and Toronto. Pittsburgh hockey fans (and some media members) have almost a swollen sense of pride over the notion that Kessel has been treated more fairly here and has thrived as a result.

But being “fair” also means assessing criticism when it is warranted. Kessel can’t play with Crosby (even the coach has said so). Unless he is giving you offense, he isn’t giving much of anything since he doesn’t hit, block shots, or play much defense. And for whatever reason, he fails to use his deadly wrist shot as often as he should. Kessel seems to have tried to make himself into more of a playmaker than a scorer this past year. And he is a good passer. But the dawn should never come up on a day when he goes through an entire playoff game without multiple shots on goal. That happened five times this post season.

If I told you Kessel would score 49 goals when he was acquired before the ‘15-’16 season, your response may have been: “Great! Which year?!” Actually, though, that’s his Penguins’ regular season total.

In good times here in Pittsburgh, Kessel has been portrayed as a loveable, crazy uncle who is constantly misunderstood by everyone else at the family reunion. When things are going right, it’s OK to call Kessel a quirky goof. When things are going badly, he gets positioned as a clubhouse cancer.

It’s unfair to say that Phil Kessel hasn’t done enough as a Pittsburgh Penguin. But it’s also accurate to say he is capable of more. And that expectation shouldn’t change because Tocchet is now with the Coyotes.

But he shouldn’t be traded either.

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