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Speak softly, carry a big stick: Kessel keeps on scoring in Pittsburgh

A man of few words, Phil Kessel dismisses reports of summer discord and continues to shine in a supporting, scoring role in Pittsburgh.

Don’t mess with Phil.

The backlash was blistering this past off-season when reports surfaced that right winger Phil Kessel had clashed with Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan, partly over wanting to play with center Evgeni Malkin, and that the Penguins might consider trading Kessel.

Fans reacted on social media and sports talk shows by vehemently defending Kessel. After all, in his three seasons since being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs, he has helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cups, and last season he put up a career-best 92 points. “Pittsburgh’s been great,” Kessel said in the early days of 2018-19. “The fans are great. The city’s great. I think I fit in well.”

Dating to its steel-mill days, Pittsburgh at its core has an everyman, shot-and-a-beer mentality. Kessel apparently comes across as something of a regular guy, someone with whom a fan could knock back a beer. Or maybe a beer and a hot dog.

Sullivan might not be buddy-buddy with Kessel, but he claims to be a member of his fan club even after saying Kessel wasn’t hindered by injuries when he scored just once, with eight assists, in 12 playoff games as Pittsburgh was ousted in the second round last spring. General manager Jim Rutherford, meanwhile, backed a theory that Kessel was limited in the playoffs due to nagging injuries. “My relationship with Phil is the same as it’s always been,” said Sullivan at the June draft in response to the reported rift. “It’s one of respect, of mutual respect, and that’s how I see it. I like Phil a lot as a person and a hockey player. He’s been a big part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ success the last three seasons. He’s coming off a 92-point season, put us in a great position to compete again for a Stanley Cup. He was a huge part of the two Stanley Cups that we won, and myself and our coaching staff have nothing but respect for the type of player and the person he is.”

The combination of Carl Hagelin, Malkin and Kessel had staying power early this season when the Penguins were shuffling lines and looking for the right chemistry. Through seven games, Malkin led the team with 13 points, and Kessel was tied for the lead with four goals among his 10 points.

Coincidence? Kessel getting his way? “(I had) no say. That’s on Sully,” said Kessel of his spot next to Malkin.

Does it really matter? It’s working. “We play well together,” Kessel said.

He dismissed reports of a disconnect with Sullivan without specifically addressing it. “I think some people make issues that aren’t there,” Kessel said. “It is what it is.”

Kessel has declined to say whether – or to what extent – he was injured in the playoffs last spring. He mentions that he averaged nearly a point per game. “I mean, it’s not that bad, is it?”

That single goal, though…

Kessel, 31, is fleet on his skates and has been labelled a sniper throughout his career, with his wicked shot defining his game. Hagelin, however, doesn’t buy it. In an overtime loss against visiting Vancouver Oct. 16, Kessel carried the puck down the right side of the Canucks’ zone on a 2-on-1 with Hagelin. To the surprise of the home crowd – not to mention, Vancouver goalie Anders Nilsson and even Hagelin – Kessel didn’t shoot. He sent a dart of a pass to Hagelin at the far post for the tying goal in the third period.

Hagelin called the pass “sneaky” and offered a somewhat surprising assessment of Kessel. “I think everybody in the league knows Phil is a pass-first type of guy, even though he’s got a great shot,” Hagelin said.

About that shot: while Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is maniacal in his attention to detail, Kessel is not. “A lot of it’s natural,” he said. “As a kid I shot a lot of pucks. Nowadays I don’t really do too much (extra work on it).”

Asked about being a playmaker versus a shooter, Kessel begged off. “I don’t know. I want to win, right? I try to do whatever to help the team win.”

That wasn’t enough in Toronto. Kessel topped 30 goals in four of his six seasons with the Leafs, but they made the playoffs just once during his time there. Before that, he got into the playoffs in two of his three seasons with his original NHL club, Boston.

Now he’s in a city that has embraced him and part of a team that has the NHL’s longest active playoff streak – 12 seasons in a row – with no sign of it ending. And, whether Kessel lobbied for it or not, he’s on a line with Malkin. “It has the potential to be a very dynamic line for us,” Sullivan said. “The quick-strike capability is evident.” – Shelly Anderson

ONES THAT GOT AWAY

BOSTON BRUINS: Losing Joe Thornton was bad, but Ken Dryden was worse. Had the Bruins not traded the unknown Dryden to Montreal immediately after drafting him 14th overall in 1964, they might have been a dynasty instead of underachiever. They likely would’ve won three more Cups in the ’70s.

BUFFALO SABRES: Tom Barrasso, just 23 and entering his prime, had already won the Calder, Vezina and Jennings Trophies when Buffalo dealt him to Pittsburgh in 1988. He won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins, while the Sabres got Doug Bodger and Darrin Shannon.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Back in the Hartford days, the Whalers had a great young defenseman in Chris Pronger but traded him to St. Louis for Brendan Shanahan. Sure, ‘Shanny’ was great, but he played only one season before going to Detroit. Pronger won a Hart Trophy and captained the Blues for six years.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: A sore spot in the organization for years: Columbus could’ve drafted Anze Kopitar in 2005, but GM Doug MacLean overruled his scouting staff and went with Gilbert Brule instead. Kopitar, of course, became a two-way force in L.A. Imagine if Rick Nash had a center in his Columbus days…

DETROIT RED WINGS: After breaking out with 121 points in his fourth NHL season, Marcel Dionne wanted a big raise and L.A. was willing to give it to him. The two teams swung a deal, Dionne signed for $300,000 a season with the Kings, then went on to become one of the most prolific offensive players ever.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: The Panthers got five excellent seasons from Roberto Luongo, then traded him to Vancouver in 2006 for a package including Todd Bertuzzi. Bertuzzi played seven games for the Panthers. Florida got Luongo back in 2014 but missed his prime years, including a 2011 Cup final berth.

MONTREAL CANADIENS:Armed with the first overall pick in the 1980 draft, the Canadiens took WHL star Doug Wickenheiser over hometown sensation Denis Savard. The Hall of Famer made it to Montreal later in his career in a trade for Chris Chelios – in another case of the Habs letting a great player get away.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS:Brendan Morrison was a promising young NHLer, but contract issues prefaced a trade to Vancouver that sent Alexander Mogilny the other way. Morrison became a key member of the famed ‘West Coast Express’ line with Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. Mogilny left Jersey a year later.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:You could fill a book with Mike Milbury’s errors, but sending Zdeno Chara (and a draft pick that became Jason Spezza!) to Ottawa in the Alexei Yashin deal may be the worst. Chara matured into a surefire Hall of Famer in Ottawa and then Boston, where he won the Stanley Cup as captain.

NEW YORK RANGERS:The Rangers let Gordie Howe slip through their fingers when they failed to sign the 15-year-old Saskatchewan phenom back in 1943. A year later, Detroit signed ‘Mr. Hockey,’ and soon after the legendary right winger was embarking on one of the most amazing careers in all of pro sports.

OTTAWA SENATORS: With the first pick in the 1993 draft, the Senators skipped over Chris Pronger and opted for Alexandre Daigle. Daigle remarked that nobody remembers who was taken second, prompting Pronger to say many years later, “Guess who’s eating the s--- sandwich on that one.”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Sure, the Flyers got Eric Lindros, but they had to give up Peter Forsberg – not to mention a boatload of other assets – in order to get ‘The Big E’ in 1992. While both Forsberg and Lindros had Hall of Fame careers that were hampered by injuries, Forsberg won two Cups with Colorado.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The Penguins whiffed big-time on a 1996 trade that saw them acquire Alek Stojanov from Vancouver for Markus Naslund. Naslund was beloved in Vancouver, tallying 756 points while also serving as captain for seven seasons. Stojanov played 45 games for Pittsburgh, scoring twice.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Tampa Bay had the No. 3 pick in 1993 and drafted rugged junior Chris Gratton, leaving University of Maine 100-point man Paul Kariya for Anaheim. Gratton eventually had a 30-goal season for the Bolts but was then dealt to Philadelphia, while Kariya had a Hall of Fame career in Anaheim.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Bobby Orr essentially grew up in the Leafs’ backyard and almost certainly would’ve signed with them had they shown the same interest as the Bruins, who spotted Orr at a tournament in Gananoque, Ont., in 1961 and were relentless in their pursuit of him.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: The trade became infamous almost immediately. Washington dealt prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville in 2013 for Martin Erat and minor-leaguer Michael Latta. Erat was gone within a year, scoring just 27 points for the Caps, while Forsberg developed into a star winger for the Predators.

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