"I don't see why he wouldn't want to coach the Oilers."
– Oilers president Kevin Lowe on rumored coaching candidate Brent Sutter
"I don't see why he wouldn't want to coach the Oilers."
– Oilers president Kevin Lowe on rumored coaching candidate Brent Sutter
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 Chicago Blackhawks superstar is climbing up the scoring charts again and his ability to beguile goaltenders with his intentions is helping him get there
Don't look now, but Patrick Kane is gunning for another Art Ross Trophy. The Chicago Blackhawks superstar has 10 points in his past six games and currently sits just behind Edmonton wunderkind Connor McDavid for the NHL scoring lead.
The Blackhawks just dropped a 3-2 contest to Minnesota (no shame there; the Wild are a heavy outfit), but Kane was a terror, throwing two goals past Vezina favorite Devan Dubnyk. What's most interesting about Kane's attack is how he put the shots past Dubnyk. Here's the first one, which admittedly, probably came with some luck:
OK, Kane's not an evil genius for knuckling one under Dubnyk because the puck was rolling, but let's go to the second goal for a better example of his craftiness:
There we go. Firing a rocket that Dubnyk clearly wasn't prepared for, and doing so amidst a bunch of skates when most shooters would have pulled the puck out of the fray first. Few players are as confident as Kane is with the puck and that's a weapon he uses to exploit goaltenders time and again. Historically, just look back to the most famous goal he ever scored, the overtime Stanley Cup game-winner against Philadelphia – as we've all seen countless times, Kane was basically the only person in the arena who knew the puck had gone in. Interesting side note – Colorado's Matt Duchene once told me that he knew the puck had gone in right away because he had been studying the older Kane and seen the trick once before. But for those of us who aren't elite hockey players, Kane's maneuvers are consistently quite impressive.
In an era where goal-scoring is at a premium, there's a reason why Kane has still been successful and his obfuscation is a big part of it. Same goes for Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Auston Matthews – they're thinking about offense on a different level from mere mortals. On the other end of the spectrum, you still have a couple of elite scorers who can overpower netminders with their shots: Patrik Laine and Alex Ovechkin, who are currently tied in both goals and points, which I believe is a nice bit of cosmic alignment.
Last year, Kane won the scoring crown with 106 points and he was the only NHLer to hit triple digits. Right now, no one is on pace to break 100, though Crosby is in the ballpark if he has a hot second half. Defensive schemes and excellent goaltenders are suppressing offense right now, but at least we still have a few artists like Kane working on the assembly line.
Gabriel Landeskog (right) and Matt Duchene
The lowly Avalanche seem poised to make some big moves, but potential deals for forward Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene keep stalling.
For several weeks, Colorado Avalanche forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene featured prominently in NHL trade speculation. With the Avs at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and considered out of playoff contention, GM Joe Sakic is reportedly listening to offers for his core players, with Landeskog and Duchene the most notable trade candidates.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports Sakic's set a high asking price. On Jan. 3, Friedman said the Avs GM sought “legit young defensemen or defensive prospects.” Recent rumors linking the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins claimed Sakic sought promising defenseman Brandon Carlo in return, an offer the Bruins apparently rejected.
TSN's Darren Dreger reports Sakic's asking price for Landeskog is higher than originally thought. He said the Avs seek a “top-level defenseman, a first-round draft pick plus.” He adds that's generated a negative reaction from his peers.
Every GM sets an initially high price when shopping a core player, but Sakic's dreaming if he thinks he'll net that type of return for Landeskog. While he has four 50-plus points seasons on his resume, including a career-high 65-points in 2013-14, his production doesn't merit such a lofty return. His sub-par production this season (13 points in 30 games) won't bolster his trade value.
There's been no word on Sakic's asking price for Duchene, but one can assume it's similar to Landeskog's. The 25-year-old center has better stats this season (24 points in 36 games) than the Avs captain and exceeded 50 points five times in his career.
First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is the only Avalanche player who might fetch that big return. Given his age (21) and skills, he could reach his full potential on a deeper roster. Still, a rival GM must give considerable thought toward deciding if MacKinnon is worth a top defenseman, a first round pick and more.
Dreger's colleague Pierre LeBrun thinks Sakic could make a move involving Landeskog or Duchene in the off-season. Interested parties should have more salary-cap space to work, plus there's usually more willingness at the NHL draft weekend in June to swing deals involving established stars.
DROUIN COULD MAKE FOR GOOD TRADE CHIP FOR LIGHTNING
A year ago, Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Jonathan Drouin generated headlines with his demotion to the club's farm team, followed by a holdout and refusing to play and requesting a trade. Eventually, Drouin withdrew his request, returned to action and became a productive part of the Lightning roster.
But with the Bolts sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and in danger of sliding further out of contention, perhaps Drouin could be used as a trade chip. In his trade-season preview of the Eastern Conference, ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggests the 21-year-old could be the type of player that fetches some much-needed help for the Bolts' blueline.
Custance observes Drouin is a restricted free agent this summer, along with fellow forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. All will be in line for significant raises, leading Custance to suggest that “at some point the cap space is going to disappear.”
The Lightning's biggest need is another top-four defenseman. If there's one to be had via trade of the same pedigree as Drouin, Custances feels it would make sense to make that move.
Adding a quality rearguard won't be easy. GM Steve Yzerman repeatedly said he's making calls but there's not much happening in the trade market right now. So far, there's no indication out of Tampa Bay suggesting Drouin is available.
Yzerman could be forced to wait until the market improves, but that could be weeks away. By that point, it could prove too late to save the Lightning's season.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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Joe Thornton spears Paul Stastny
Joe Thornton hit the showers early on Saturday night, getting tagged with a major and game misconduct for a spear on Blues center Paul Stastny. Officials made the right call, too.
Joe Thornton has never been all that afraid of mixing it up or using some stick work here and there to let opponents know he’s going to be in their face all night, but even the most wily of veterans can have their best attempt at a sneakily dirty play backfire. That’s exactly what happened midway through the Sharks’ Saturday meeting with the St. Louis Blues.
Shortly after the midway point of the second period, Thornton got mixed up with Blues center Paul Stastny, who delivered a subtle hack to the upper thigh of Thornton. As retaliation, Thornton used his stick blade as a pitchfork and dropped a slight stab into the gut area of Stastny, causing him to buckle and stumble before he got back to his feet.
At the time the play happened, it was hard to tell exactly what referees were about to tag Thornton for, but the eagle-eyed officials picked up the spear and they came down hard on Thornton for his transgression. He was handed a major penalty for spearing and given the gate:
The more rough and tumble of hockey fans may look at the play and scoff at Thornton getting handed both a major and game misconduct for a spear that really didn’t look all that bad, but by the letter of the law, the officials got it right.
Rule 62 pertains to spearing, and the penalties handed out for Thornton’s actions fit the crime. According to rule 62.3, a major penalty is handed out to any player who spears an opponent and makes contact, with rule 62.5 indicating that any major penalty for spearing is to be paired with a game misconduct. The only thing that would have saved Thornton in this instance — aside from, you know, not spearing Stastny — would have been if he missed Stastny with the stick. A spearing attempt that misses an opponent can be met with a double minor.
While there’s no certainty that Thornton will receive a fine for spearing Stastny, he has opened himself up to potential supplemental discipline. He has only a minor history with the Department of Player Safety over the past several seasons, with the lone incident coincidentally occurring against St. Louis. Thornton received a two-game ban for a hit on Blues winger David Perron back in November 2010.
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