"It was like playing with a tennis ball, quite honestly."
- Kings captain Dustin Brown on the ice conditions at the Prudential Center in New Jersey for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
"It was like playing with a tennis ball, quite honestly."
- Kings captain Dustin Brown on the ice conditions at the Prudential Center in New Jersey for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
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.
Jake Allen’s recent struggles could have Blues GM Doug Armstrong scouring the trade market for help in goal as the post-season approaches. Meanwhile, trade talk surrounds the Flyers and Coyotes.
St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen's recent performance has left much to be desired. After a strong effort through the opening two months of the season, the 26-year-old's play declined through December and into January.
After reeling off eight straight wins from Nov. 15 to Dec. 6, Allen has only four victories his last 13 starts. He had a save percentage below .900 in eight of those games and was pulled early in his last two starts.
Appearing on Montreal's TSN 690 last Thursday, NHL insider Bob McKenzie said the Blues are worried about Allen's decline this season. He thinks they could keep an eye on the trade market for a goalie, though they must be careful over what they afford in dollars and return.
In late-December, McKenzie's colleague Darren Dreger suggested the Blues should consider acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury carries a no-movement clause and the Penguins must move him in order to protect Matt Murray in the expansion draft. If Allen fails to snap out of his current funk and Fleury's willing to waive his clause, perhaps Blues GM Doug Armstrong might come calling.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop could be another option. The 30-year-old began his NHL career with the Blues. He's eligible for UFA status in July and isn't expected to be re-signed by the Lightning.
The Bolts need a top-four defenseman and the Blues have a pending UFA blueliner in Kevin Shattenkirk. While that seems like a perfect fit for both clubs, Armstrong appears in no hurry to move Shattenkirk. He'll likely remain patient with Allen for the time being, but could consider other options if the netminder fails to improve.
SLIDING FLYERS NOT KEEN ON MOVING YOUNG BLUELINER
A 10-game winning streak by the Philadelphia Flyers from late-November through mid-December had them comfortably in the midst of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Since the streak ended on Dec. 17, however, the Flyers dropped 11 of their past 14 games. Entering this week, they're on the verge of tumbling out of the last wild-card spot in the East.
CSNPhilly.com's Tim Panaccio reports Flyers GM Ron Hextall said he'll only swing a deal if it'll significantly help the club. Given the Flyers poor performance of late, Panaccio feels a trade might be Hextall's only option to improve things.
Finding a suitable deal won't be easy. Panaccio acknowledges Hextall carries “only a few marketable commodities” that might fetch a good return. Rival GMs could have more interest in the Flyers' crop of promising young defensemen.
Hextall won't part with established young blueliners Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere. Panaccio suggests prospects Travis Sanheim, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Phillipe Myers have potential to become franchise defensemen. Hextall might not be keen to part with any of them, but it might be necessary if one or two could fetch a return that helps right the Flyers' sinking ship.
The Colorado Avalanche are in the market for good young defensemen and reportedly entertaining offers for left wing Gabriel Landeskog and center Matt Duchene. The Flyers limited salary-cap space, however, would complicate things.
DESPITE DOWN YEAR, DOAN COULD DRAW INTEREST
The ongoing struggles of the Arizona Coyotes makes the club a frequent topic for media trade chatter. Most of the speculation concerns center Martin Hanzal and defenseman Michael Stone. Both are eligible for unrestricted free agency in July and could be moved by the March 1 trade deadline.
In recent years, right wing Shane Doan usually surfaced in the rumor mill, though the conjecture was always quickly quelled by Doan or Coyotes management. This year, however, might be different.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports the Coyotes might consider moving Doan before the deadline. He believes if management approaches the 40-year-old with an opportunity to play for a winner, he might consider waiving his no-movement clause. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch doubts Doan's movement clause will prevent some rival clubs from making inquiries. He claims the San Jose Sharks attempted to land the veteran forward over the last two years.
With only 12 points in 42 games, the aging Doan is on pace for 24 points, his lowest output in a non-lockout season since his 22-point campaign in 1998-99. Still, the 6-foot-1, 223-pound winger has good size, years of experience and leadership ability. He also netted 28 goals and 47 points last season, so perhaps he might regain his scoring touch on a deeper club.
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.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
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.
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.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.