Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins wing Phil Kessel is an enigma

(Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

In just one calendar year, superstar wing Phil Kessel went from the most overrated player in the game to a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.

The transformation, of course, began when Kessel arrived in Pittsburgh during the summer of 2015. It didn’t happen immediately, but without the burden of having to carry the team or being the face of the franchise, Kessel settled into his role with the Penguins and thrived. After scoring 10 goals and 22 points to lead the team in both categories last postseason, the sky appeared to be the limit for the superstar moving forward with Pittsburgh.

While Kessel has delivered on a lot of his potential, he’s disappointed in other facets. That’s continued to turn him into one of the most polarizing players in the NHL.

Including the postseason, Kessel has 29 goals and 85 points in 97 games in 2016-17. He’s been particularly good in the playoffs, delivering six goals and 15 points in 15 contests.

But not enough of his production has come at even strength. Almost 44 percent of his points in those 97 games are from the power play. Since Feb. 16, Kessel has scored at even strength just four times; that’s simply not enough from what is supposed to be Pittsburgh’s top pure goal scorer.

During the regular season, he suffered from a lack of shots. Kessel recorded just 229 shots, which was his lowest total since 2008-09. He averaged 2.79 shots per game while last season he posted 3.34 per contest. Just three years ago, he averaged 3.72 shots per game.

Those numbers obviously indicate he deferred more often, which is a problem. His shooting percentage was actually higher than it was last season by 0.5 percent, so Kessel hasn’t lost his scoring touch — he needs to give himself more opportunities and be more aggressive with his attempts.

The good news is this postseason, the shot-first mentality has returned slightly. He is averaging exactly 3.0 shots per contest in the playoffs, but that’s still far below what it was in the 2016 postseason (4.08). And four of his six goals are on the man advantage. Again, Pittsburgh needs to see Kessel more involved in 5-on-5 situations.

Of course, there’s two sides to every coin. Kessel is still averaging a point per game this postseason, so criticism of the superstar can only go so far. Scoring a point per contest is an incredible feat in today’s game, especially in the playoffs even in a smaller sample size.

And if it’s not coming at even strength, it means Kessel is dominating on the man advantage. He leads everybody with four power-play goals and is tied for second with seven power-play points this spring.

Pittsburgh is just 1-for-14 on the power play in the last five games. The Penguins need Kessel to provide a spark to that unit. For a team that’s struggling to score at the moment, the man advantage could loom large in getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals.

And while one certainly could still complain about the lack of shots during the regular season and playoffs, Kessel set a career high with 47 assists this season and already has nine in 15 postseason games. He’s more of a playmaker now than ever in his career.

The “media takes” on his toughness and work ethic are polarizing as well. Kessel is somewhat one-dimensional in the sense that he doesn’t play physically or provide a ferocious forecheck, which tends to be a problem when a team needs more grit and dirty goals. That’s just not something in his game. Kessel has a measly 21 hits in the last 164 games.

But don’t try to sell the narrative that he is lacking in desire. Kessel hasn’t missed a game since 2009-10, and he played last postseason with a hand injury that required surgery.

When talking about Kessel, it seems as though we all try to pigeonhole him into one storyline — either he is a Stanley Cup hero or lackluster player in the regular season or at even strength. In the eyes of some, he’s a lazy, one-dimensional star while in the opinion of others, an iron man that never misses a game — something Penguins fans should deeply appreciate considering all the team’s injuries.

In actuality, he’s a little bit of all those things. One thing is for certain, though, as Pittsburgh heads into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals down 2-1 in the series — the Penguins need Kessel to be a hero now more than ever. With an injury depleted lineup, Kessel, along with the other stars, must carry Pittsburgh if a repeat feat remains the goal.

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