Let’s not act like we don’t know why Phil Kessel is considered a divisive player. Various Canadian media members — including but not limited to Steve Simmons of The Toronto Sun — consistently threw the American under the bus, going so far as to fabricate the now famous hot dog story about the forward while he was skating for the Maple Leafs.
He was one of the NHL’s best goal scorers during his time in Toronto, and that hasn’t changed since he landed in Pittsburgh in July 2015.
Now three years into his career with the Penguins, Kessel is still riding strong as one of the most consistent finishers in the league. Or, put another way, there’s nothing divisive about the 30-year-old and what he brings to the ice on a nightly basis.
In a season where the Penguins have struggled to find cohesion in various ways, Kessel has stood out as their best player. They haven’t been particularly good on the road — they are 4-7-2 away and 5-0-1 at home — and they’ve been hammered on the second leg of back-to-backs, yet they’re still hanging tough in the wild-card race.
Conventional wisdom would hold that either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin is the top forward for the Penguins at any given time, but that hasn’t been the case so far in 2017-18. Crosby entered play on Nov. 13 mired in an 11-game goalless drought. Among the 12 Penguins forwards who have skated at least 100 minutes this season, Crosby’s 49.75 Corsi for percentage is ranked 11th, as is his expected goals for percentage of 48.04.
Kessel seems to be channeling his playoff form early this season and has been dynamite with and without the puck. He has the third-highest Corsi for percentage among that same group of 12 forwards and his 53.22 expected goals for percentage is fourth. Ryan Reaves and Greg McKegg rank above him in xGF%, but that has more to do with their limited ice time and quality of competition than anything.
On the other hand, Kessel is rolled out against tough opponents every night, and he still produces. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have been absolutely unstoppable this season, and no one else in the league has cracked 30 points yet outside of those two.
Kessel is ranked fourth overall in total points with 22, though, and is a big reason why the Penguins haven’t sunk in the standings while the typically outstanding Crosby struggles.
While he’s taken head coach Mike Sullivan’s advice to shoot the puck more — only Max Pacioretty, Evander Kane and Alex Ovechkin have fired more pucks this season — Kessel is still providing strong support for his linemates. He has 15 assists on the year and has been the most dynamic part of Pittsburgh’s fifth-ranked power play. Kessel’s racked up 11 points while skating up a man, which is good for third in the league.
The Penguins are a much more dangerous team when Kessel isn’t passing on quality chances, and he’s shooting way more now than he was in 2016-17. A year ago, he averaged 2.79 successful shot attempts per game. That translated to Kessel’s lowest goal output (23) since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. You’d have to go back to his sophomore year in 2007-08 to find the last time he scored that infrequently during a full season.
Sullivan has long pushed the forward to shoot the puck more, and it seems like the former fifth-overall pick is finally starting to listen. Kessel has one of the better releases in the NHL, and this year he’s utilizing it in a way that he hasn’t since arriving in Pittsburgh.
He’s getting pucks to the net an average of 4.1 times per contest in 2017-18, and that’s led to success for both him, his linemates and his team. The season is still young, but if Kessel continues to produce like he has been, he could push the 90-point barrier for the first time in his career. As we approach the middle part of November, he’s on pace for 30 goals, 95 points and a whopping 337 shots.
While we may not see Kessel cross the 90-point threshold (only two players have done that over the last three seasons), there’s no denying that he’s been an impactful player for the Penguins this year. The shooting and scoring spree couldn’t have come at a better time either.
Crosby will find his A-game at some juncture, and a goalie other than Matt Murray will presumably be able to pick up a win at some point. For now, though, Kessel is the motor that is driving the Penguins, and it’s all because he decided to take his coach’s advice and shoot the puck more often.