Joey Burke, Staten Island, N.Y.
Joey Burke, Staten Island, N.Y.
Phil Kessel. Image by: Joe Sargent/Getty Images
From his day with the Cup in Toronto to a September night tweeting (infamously) at home with his dog to running for president, we’re seeing a new Phil Kessel.
By Shelly Anderson
He got chirped by the president. Then he jokingly ran for president. Winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh certainly has elevated Phil Kessel’s lot in life in unexpected ways.
Kessel was seen by some as sullen and surly during his six seasons with Toronto, but his first year-plus since the Penguins traded for him in July 2015 has been super. He helped Pittsburgh win the Cup, leading the team with 10 goals and 22 points in 24 playoff games, and had a strong start this season averaging nearly a point per game. He has won over his teammates and jettisoned any lingering angst or ugliness he might have felt toward Toronto. It was a big transition in a short time heavily facilitated by his new club’s success.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy, isn’t it?” Kessel said, smiling and laughing – a side of the right winger Maple Leafs fans likely would not recognize.
Kessel harbors no ill will toward Toronto.
“I love the city,” he said. “It’s a good city.”
In July, he took the Cup to Toronto, visiting The Hospital for Sick Children. Three months later, Kessel spiffed up for the Penguins’ Oct. 6 visit to the White House. He got red-cheeked and laughed with everyone else when President Barack Obama opened with this line aimed at someone who had barely sniffed the post-season before last spring: “We are here to celebrate an extraordinary achievement – Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion.”
He’s a Cup champion who was overlooked by Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. It’s unclear whether Kessel would have been ready after having off-season hand surgery, but it was still seen as a snub. Kessel rolled with it. The night the Americans played, and lost to, Canada, he tweeted this zinger: “Just sitting around the house tonight with my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Then, in the pre-season, cameras followed Kessel, 29, during a day of team photo sessions. He good-naturedly poked fun at himself for being tired and for looking like he was balding in some of the shots.
The topper came when Kessel provided some levity the day before the presidential election when he tweeted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt touting, “Phil for president…Nice guy. Tries Hard. Loves the Game.”
Teammate Tom Sestito stumbled upon the shirts online at Sin Bin Hockey and ordered several. His teammates got a huge kick out of the stunt, though they aren’t all sure he’s quite ready to hold the highest office.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t know,” captain Sidney Crosby said, barely able to talk because he was laughing hard. “I love the shirt, though.”
Kessel’s teammates have embraced him completely.
“Dry sense of humor,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think with us he can relax and be himself. He seems pretty reserved, and then he takes pictures of himself in that shirt and puts it on Twitter, all serious looking. It was funny stuff. He’s a funny dude.”
One who is perfectly willing to be, or even set himself up as, the fall guy when it comes to jokes. “He’s got pretty thick skin,” Crosby said. “He’s pretty good about it.”
Unlike Crosby, winger Carl Hagelin was sold on the Phil for President idea. “I would have voted for Phil, yeah,” said Hagelin, who is Swedish. “Phil’s the man. He’s a funny guy. He’s a great teammate. You just like seeing him when he comes to the rink.”
The now famous ‘HBK Line’ of Kessel, Hagelin and Nick Bonino has played together only at times this season, but Kessel has continued to produce – just not in his usual way. Through Friday, he led the team with 28 assists, dishing up perfect saucer passes and setting up teammates for deflections.
“Phil has that great release, but he also can find those little soft passes,” said winger Chris Kunitz. “He’s really good at being deceptive and throwing people off.”
Kessel insisted it isn’t a new aspect of his game: “I try to make the right play. That’s about it. I’ve always felt like if there’s a pass, I’m going to make the pass. If I feel like I can shoot it, I’m going to shoot it, right?”
Kessel has scored 30 or more goals five times and is closing in on 300 for his career, but he is off his standard pace so far. He was averaging 2.83 shots per game, down from his career average of 3.37. That concerned coach Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan chatted with Kessel in early November to deliver a message. “He is a very good passer and a very good playmaker, but we think when he’s at his very best, he’s thinking shot first,” Sullivan said. “He’s choosing to distribute versus shooting the puck. We’d like to see him shoot a little more.”
At least Kessel has shown a willingness to shoot more from the lip, much to the delight of his teammates.
The NHL and NHLPA still have yet to reach a conclusion when it comes to discussions about Olympic participation, but the good news is the International Olympic Committee has said there’s no firm deadline for the league to make a decision.
After months of concern about an impending mid-January deadline for the NHL to reach a decision on whether the league will send its players to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, it appears the International Olympic Committee is willing to give the NHL the time it needs to reach a conclusion on Olympic participation.
In an October interview with the Associated Press, Christophe Dubi, the IOC's executive director of the Olympic Games, pointed out the positives of the NHL coming to check out the proposed site of the tournament and indicated that mid-January could be the deadline for the league to choose its course of action when it came to PyeongChang.
“Until (Jan. 15) it will be work between all parties involved to make sure that we get the participation of the very best, and that's for both Pyeongchang and Beijing,” Dubi told the Associated Press.
However, according to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, that deadline is no more. A spokesperson for the IOC told LeBrun that “no agreed final deadline” exists for the league to come to a decision on Olympic participation, and the spokesperson continued by saying the IOC would continue to “work towards a positive outcome” with the league.
In response to the IOC’s comments, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told LeBrun that it was “interesting to hear” given the league hasn’t heard from the IOC regarding the NHL sending players to the game. Daly continued by telling LeBrun that “there does not appear currently to be anywhere near the requisite support from our clubs that would be necessary for the league to commit to Olympic participation in 2018.”
That there’s no deadline in place is a major positive for fans wishing to see the league participate, as it gives both the NHL and NHLPA more time to work out a potential agreement that would allow the players to go to PyeongChang. A number of players, from Alex Ovechkin to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, have made clear their desire to play at the tournament, but the NHL and NHLPA have yet to been able to work out an agreement.
Earlier in the discussions about participation, the NHL approached the NHLPA with a potential agreement that would see the players given the right to head to the 2018 Olympics in exchange for a three-year extension of the current collective bargaining agreement. Some players openly scoffed at the offer, and it was rejected shortly after it was made.
Despite the fact NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr was openly optimistic about the chance the league would send the players to the two-week tournament, the situation has appeared bleak recently, especially with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commenting that he didn’t feel owners throughout the league were all that enthused about shutting down the season in order to send players. That sentiment was echoed by Daly to LeBrun, and as we inch closer to the end of January, it appears the Olympic participation saga is set to continue.
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If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you need speed. And for players on their way up through the ranks, skating acumen is going to be the price of admission for an NHL job
I was having a conversation with an NHL team scout yesterday, which is one of the best parts of my job. I learn so much from these chats and not just about the draft prospects we are discussing, but of the bigger picture as well. While discussing the pros and cons of some prospects, we began to talk about skating and its place in the game today. Simply put, it's becoming a must-have.
"The No. 1 priority is skating," said the scout. "Even if your hockey sense or skills aren't the greatest, at least we can point you in the right direction."
We all know it's a fast game today and you just have to look at all the recent champions to validate the skating argument. Team Canada's World Cup squad suffocated opponents with their skating, taking away time and space at both ends of the ice – though their excellence in the puck possession department dramatically narrowed the amount of time they had to use their speed on the defensive end.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup this past summer thanks to a team that had speed up and down its lineup. Think about it – how many Penguins from that team would you characterize as slow, by NHL standards? Maybe a couple, at most? Meanwhile, teams had to contest with Sidney Crosby, Carl Hagelin and Kris Letang, among many others.
At the world juniors, Team USA won gold with a similarly dangerous lineup, trotting out the likes of Colin White, Clayton Keller and Jack Roslovic to terrify teams.
What's really interesting for me is how speed is going to change bottom-six roles in the NHL. We're already seeing it, with teams employing fewer enforcers, but how far can the concept be pushed? Roslovic might be the perfect case study to keep an eye on, because as a prospect of the Winnipeg Jets, he's got a lot of talent ahead of him in the form of Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. But if Roslovic, who is leading AHL Manitoba in scoring as a rookie, despite missing games due to the world juniors, is ready for the NHL leap next season, why hold him back if he can contribute from the third line? If defense is coming from speed these days anyway, it seems like a pretty nice way to get more skill in the lineup.
Tampa Bay will have a similar query to address in a year or two when prospects such as Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph come knocking on the door. All three have skill, but they can also skate and play with grit. It's a great problem to have if you're the Lightning.
What happens to prospects that aren't blessed with foot speed? Well, it's going to take them a little longer. We're seeing it with Dylan Strome, whom most of assumed would be full-time in Arizona this season. But thanks to his abundance of other talents and attributes, Strome can zero in on improving on his speed and strength, knowing that an NHL career is close. It can certainly be done, but he'll have to watch out for all the young burners out there on the fast-track while he does it.
Martin St-Louis’ journey didn’t start with his name being called at the draft, but that didn’t stop him from reaching great heights in the NHL. This season, these five undrafted players are making their presence felt.
Friday night in Tampa Bay, the Lightning celebrated the career of Martin St-Louis, one of the greatest players in franchise history, by raising his famed No. 26 to the rafters.
For St-Louis, the jersey retirement marked one of the final great moments in a career that had plenty. From Art Ross Trophies to a Stanley Cup victory, St-Louis was one of the greatest players of his generation, hanging up his skates with nearly 400 goals and more than 1,000 points to his name.
Despite having an outstanding career, though, the one thing St-Louis never got to experience was having his name called at the draft. Instead, he played his way through junior hockey in Ontario and Quebec, made some noise with four solid seasons at University of Vermont and earned his shot at the NHL after producing consistently in the minor leagues. Even still, that St-Louis was never selected in the draft is one of the great misses in draft history.
An undrafted player having a career like St-Louis’ is rare, but of the 100-plus players in the league who were skipped over on their respective draft days, a handful are making their presence felt this season. Here are the five undrafted players impressing the most this campaign:
5. Conor Sheary, Pittsburgh Penguins
Sheary landed a deal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after four seasons with UMass in the NCAA, and few would have pegged him to be the type of impact depth player he has become. However, after a strong, 20-goal, 45-point campaign in 2014-15, Sheary got his shot at the big league and filled in as a fourth-line piece. His real breakout came in the post-season, though.
En route to a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, Sheary netted four goals and 10 points in 23 games, matching his regular season total in roughly half the time, and he has continued to score in his sophomore season. Through 34 games this season, Sheary has 11 goals and 25 points.
4. Jonathan Marchessault, Florida Panthers
One of the best stories early in the campaign was the breakout Marchessault was experiencing as a member of the Panthers. Signed in the off-season to a two-year, $1.5-million deal, Marchessault was brought for his potential to be a contributor in the bottom-six, but he’s been a top-six player for much of the campaign in Florida with 12 goals and 26 points in 37 games.
Marchessault’s path to the NHL had a few more stops than some of the others on this list, too. After finishing his QMJHL career with the Quebec Remparts, Marchessault found a spot with the AHL’s Connecticut Whale and then inked an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After kicking around the AHL for much of the next three seasons, became a part-time NHLer in 2015-16 with the Tampa Bay Lightning before making his mark with the Panthers this season.
3. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins
Size was one of the knocks against St-Louis, who’s listed at 5-foot-8, and it was likely one of the major reasons why Krug was overlooked as a defender. At 5-foot-9, he is the league’s most diminutive blueliners, but size hasn’t stopped him from becoming a key part of the Bruins’ back end.
No defender in Beantown has put up even half the points that Krug has this season, who has four goals and 28 points, and he’s worked his way into top-pairing minutes. He’s averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time per game.
Krug’s big breakout came during the 2012-13 post-season, which saw the Bruins make their way to the Stanley Cup final. He chipped in four goals and six points on that run, and was an every-game NHLer by the time the 2013-14 campaign rolled around.
2. Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers
Zuccarello’s the only player on this list who had the opportunity to play with St-Louis, and the 5-foot-8 Rangers winger definitely picked up a thing or two from a veteran who had made a career as a small man in what is sometimes viewed as a big man’s game.
Unlike others on this list who had to fight their way through the college game and minor leagues to make it to the NHL, Zuccarello managed to find his way to the NHL through the Swedish league. After a couple of outstanding seasons in Norway, Zuccarello landed with MODO in the SHL, but up two great years and inked a deal with the Rangers. He’s been a Blueshirt ever since.
After a career-best 61 points in 2015-16, Zuccarello looks to be on pace to nearly equal that total this season. The shifty playmaker has eight goals and 31 points in 43 games.
1. Artemi Panarin, Chicago Blackhawks
That Panarin slipped through the draft is incredible given the way he has shown he can handle the big league game, but his career didn’t really take off until the 2013-14 season, so maybe it’s hard to fault scouts for missing on him earlier.
Panarin, who has 17 goals and 42 points in 45 games this season, saw his first pro action all the way back in 2008-09 with the KHL’s Vityaz Chekhov, and he scored at about a half-point per game rate during those early years. A move to SKA St. Petersburg in 2012-13 changed his career, though, as he started to find his scoring touch in a big way. In 108 games with SKA, Panarin scored 46 goals and 103 points, often outshining more recognizable talents on the team, such as Ilya Kovalchuk.
Panarin was scooped up by the Blackhawks ahead of the 2015-16 season on a bonus-laden two-year deal, and the Russian sniper has cashed in big. He met all of his bonuses with an outstanding 30-goal, 77-point rookie season, captured the Calder Trophy and he has continued to tear up the opposition this season.
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