Pittsburgh Penguins: The Case for Keeping Phil Kessel

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 8: Phil Kessel
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 8: Phil Kessel /

Phil Kessel: nice guy. Tries hard. Loves the game. Two-time Stanley Cup champion.

And now: trade bait?

Rumors that the Pens could trade Phil Kessel are on the rise. They can be traced to a preposterous column from a local Pittsburgh writer who may have suggested it just to start a controversy.  The argument centered on Rick Tocchet’s promotion to head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. Tocchet, according to the article, was “Kessel’s Whisperer.” Without Tocchet, the writer mused, was Kessel worth his $6.8 million salary?

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins /

Pittsburgh Penguins

In my opinion, there isn’t even a question. Kessel has been one of the Pens’ most consistent players and is a great playoff performer. He’s worth every penny.

The Article Lacks Fact

Most of the boldest statements in the column cited no source. For example, the columnist wrote that “it was clear in June, by the end of the Penguins’ second consecutive Stanley Cup run, that the organization wasn’t thrilled with Kessel.” Really? What evidence is there to support such a claim?

There is no denying that Tocchet and Kessel were close. NBC Sport’s Pierre McGuire noted “I see how Rick treats [Kessel] on the bench….when Phil might get down, Rick’s there to pick him up.” Kessel himself has said of Tocchet, “He is my favorite assistant coach of all time I’ve ever played for.…I don’t want to see him go…because he’s a great guy and a great coach.” There is some actual evidence to suggest that losing Tocchet will negatively affect Kessel. On the other hand, Mark Recchi’s relationship with Kessel was cited by the team as one reason to elevate him to assistant coach in place of Tocchet. Why say that if Kessel is just trade bait? If that relationship is a basis for Recchi’s promotion, then trading Kessel away would be senseless.

Numbers Don’t Lie

The columnist also stated that “my belief is Evgeni Malkin wasn’t thrilled to play on the same line with Kessel.” At least in this instance, the columnist was smart enough to call this sentence what it is: opinion, with absolutely no evidence or basis in fact. It’s worth noting that Malkin’s points per game increased from 1.02 to 1.16 from the 2015-16 to the 2016-17 season. In other words, Malkin’s points per game increased when Kessel was a frequent linemate. Malkin also had the most shots, goals, and scoring chances playing with Kessel versus any other Penguin in 2015-16 and 2016-17 during the regular season and the playoffs. (Source: Stat Trick)

Kessel’s also put up strong numbers even without Malkin as a linemate or Tocchet as a coach. In 446 games with the Leafs, Kessel had 181 goals and 394 points; in 222 games as a Bruin, Kessel had 66 goals and 129 points. Kessel has consistently had strong regular season numbers, even with poor teams.

Even more importantly, Kessel is an excellent playoff performer. He led the Penguins in scoring en route to winning the 2016 Stanley Cup with 10 goals and 22 points—three more than Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby. Kessel was third in team scoring in the 2017 playoffs behind only Malkin and Crosby. Additionally, Kessel leads the team in his two seasons in Pittsburgh with 30 power play points.

Practicalities of a Trade

Kessel is a proven, veteran winger. They’ve already lost a lot of scoring depth by losing Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, and (potentially) Matt Cullen in the wake of their most recent championship. If the Penguins did trade Kessel, what could they get in return that would make up for that loss? As the “K” in the famed “HBK” line, Kessel gave the Penguins something they had lacked for years—scoring depth. Even though Kessel played on Malkin’s line last year, he has proven himself in a third-line role should that be what the Pens need from him.

Phil Kessel is not only one of the Pens’ best players, but a consistent playoff performer. The Penguins have lacked top wingers for years, arguably since the Pens acquired and lost Marian Hossa. Now that the Penguins have one, trading him would be a step backwards.