All year I’ve been saying how much better a season Kessel was having. How much more complete a player he is here in the Burg. Back checking and mucking in the corners, creating space for team mates. He’s done so much this year to help keep the Penguins afloat.
Let’s not forget that even when the Pittsburgh Penguins were “struggling” they were still 15-10 and clinging to an early playoff spot. This didn’t stop sports writers from explaining all their professional insight on why Sidney Crosby was finished, and it didn’t stop the press and fans alike from turning on easy target and newcomer Phil Kessel.
I understand that Mike Sullivan and the roster management changes he made turned the year around. I doubt very much the Pens would have made it this far without him. But what I really want people to understand is that the change had very little effect on Kessel.
Sully came aboard in November after a 3-2 OT loss in Los Angeles that was one of the most exciting games of the year up to that point. Yet even up to the trade deadline at the end of February some 3 months later, the fans were still begging for Phil the Thrill’s head on a platter and his body shipped off to some other club. The reason for this outrage: he wasn’t scoring. That’s what we got him for, right?
That’s all well and fine. If you think his purpose is goal scoring, then maybe you’re not wrong. However, I had two major problems with the whining at the time. First of all, we did get him for scoring, but he’s always been a streaky player. The reason we got him was in the hopes that he would get hot heading into the playoffs, so regular season scoring be damned. Second of all, he still ended with 26 goals. Way back in early November, when all was hopeless and the season was over, I said Phil would end up with 25-30 goals. Even though he did that, it still wasn’t good enough for most who argued his pay check was supposed to account for more.
Again, maybe you’re not wrong. Still, I think it did account for more. His speed and shooting threat forced teams to take him seriously at all times even when he was slumping. All those young guys scoring at incredible rates are a testament to that. Nick Bonino is a product of that.
When Kessel was on the ice, he skated hard. He drove the lanes. He challenged opposing defenders. His hockey sense away from the puck opened doors for team mates that would have stayed locked had he been the lazy player of years past. Also, because other teams closed him down so well, he showed off another huge weapon in his arsenal that I myself wasn’t impressed with until this year: his passing ability.
He actually had possession of the puck a lot more than I expected and he really bought in to the quick pass and support game the Penguins play.
Add in his increased defensive efforts since he’s donned the white and gold. How many scoring chances has Kessel taken away that others without his speed and desire wouldn’t have? How many fewer turnovers has he committed this season?
He “only” had 26 goals himself, but the little pieces of his game created secondary scoring and minimized goals against. That’s just as good.
But let’s just say you disagree. He’s a 6.8 million dollar cap hit. He needed to score and he didn’t. That’s still fair enough. If ALL you’re going to judge him on is scoring as a reason to crucify him, then now that he’s scoring in the playoffs, I think that’s all you should be allowed to love him for.
Don’t all of a sudden praise him for backchecking. Don’t give him credit for his unexpected ability to find the open man. Don’t acknowledge his overall work ethic and positive attitude. Don’t point out how he creates space and softens defences for the others. That wasn’t good enough for you before. You didn’t even notice.