Phil Kessel (Head: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images; Kessel; Body: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)
Nobody has ever denied Kessel has superhuman talent, but with the Maple Leafs he often demonstrated more passion and desire playing ping-pong after practice than he did on the ice. Can he keep his care level high for the long-term in Pittsburgh?
Let’s be clear about one thing: teams do not trade away “great” players because their teammates don’t like the scent of their aftershave. Especially when they only recently committed to the player for eight years and $64 million dollars. The lifetime deal. The retirement package.
Nope, that’s not the way things work.
Teams trade such players under those circumstances when they become a giant pain in the…neck. They trade them for prospects and draft picks when the mathematical equation of, addition by subtraction, is the glaringly logical way to proceed.
They trade them when the player is Phil Kessel. Now he’s a Penguin – a bird that cannot fly.
Nobody has ever denied Kessel, 27, has superhuman talent. He does. When he is engaged, he’s one of the few players in today’s defense-first NHL game who can propel fans out of their seats. When Kessel breaks toward the net and snaps a shot, it is, well, as good as it gets in hockey. Goals are hard to come by these days. Thanks Phil.
In those moments, Kessel is one of the most breathtakingly, glad-I-forked-over-a-week’s-worth-of grocery-money-to-see-him-play-live spectacles the NHL has ever seen. He is that good. (Pssst: Is it clear yet I think Phil Kessel has talent?)
Those instances, spectacular as they are, do not characterize the whole picture. Kessel is more instant gratification than prolonged enjoyment.
He’s a sugar high – zoom, zoom, zoom…ka-boom.
In six seasons in Toronto, Kessel played a grand total of seven playoff games – played pretty well, too, with four goals and six points in a loss to his former team, the Boston Bruins. Nevertheless, one playoff appearance in six seasons doesn’t cut it.
The Bruins, by the way, drafted him fifth in 2006 and unloaded him after three seasons.
So the player who is fifth in goals-scored since 2009-10, with 181, has been traded twice. Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the positive impact he makes on a team.
With the Maple Leafs, Kessel often demonstrated more passion and desire playing ping-pong after practice than he did on the ice.
Speaking of practice, he was generally the last player on the ice for the start and the first to leave when it was over. Great example for his younger teammates.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is Kessel is motivated. For now, at least. Often times when a player is publicly scorned, they make alterations in the way they conduct themselves, and Kessel appears to have done that. The question is, are the changes permanent or just temporary?
One year after admittedly not doing much off-season preparation for the 2014-15 season and reporting to camp out of shape, Kessel trained in the off-season and arrived ready to play with the Penguins. He even scored two goals in his pre-season debut.
There is an old saying in hockey that when a player gets traded, he often plays with his, um, manhood, in the air. Eventually, however, he resorts back to old habits.
Kessel, who has never had a 40-goal NHL season and managed just 25 last year, could very well win the Rocket Richard Trophy riding shotgun for Sidney Crosby.
Asked about Kessel, Crosby referred to him as an elite scorer with a lot of speed who should fit in well with the Penguins. Crosby added the team is thrilled to have him and sometimes a change is good for a player. What else could Sid say?
Crosby, considered by many to be the best hockey player in the world, spends his summers diligently preoccupied with taking his already-elite game to an even higher level. He is the poster child for commendable work ethic.
Maybe some of that will rub off on Kessel. Maybe not.
The Penguins are hoping Kessel can simply concentrate on scoring goals now. Much like with Marian Gaborik in Los Angeles with the Kings, Kessel is not being counted on for leadership. Gaborik always left people wanting more when he played for the Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets, but when he slipped into a support role with the Kings, he helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2013-14.
If the Penguins win the Stanley Cup this season and Kessel finally scores 40, they’ll no doubt feel justified with having acquired him.
What will be interesting, though, is to see how Kessel performs over the duration of his contract. Will he be equally motivated in the final year of his deal, in 2021-22?
It has been said the best indicator of one’s future behavior is their behavior in the past.
Good luck, Penguins.