Phil Kessel has been a standout for the Pittsburgh Penguins in this year’s playoffs and is a legitimate frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
Should Phil Kessel continue his personal assault on the playoffs and be named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as tournament MVP, fans in Toronto and Boston should feel nothing but happiness for him. Wasting their time and emotional energy lamenting what might have been would be an exercise in futility.
And that’s largely because it never would have been. You see what Kessel is doing in the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins? Never would have happened in either Toronto or Boston. Fans in Boston can be thankful for what they got in return for Kessel – Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for a while – then Jimmy Hayes and three prospects they got when they dealt the players they got for Kessel. Fans in Toronto can watch as Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington try to win a Calder Trophy for their minor league team and hope the first- and third-round picks turn into something nice.
But what they should not do is ever think that Kessel would have performed for them the way he’s playing for Pittsburgh. After Kessel’s tour de force performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final, it was astounding how many times Kessel was referred to as a depth player. And those who labeled him that way are absolutely right. Kessel is a depth player, perhaps the best one in the NHL, and he’s playing in an absolutely perfect situation in Pittsburgh.
Almost everyone thought that perfect position would be with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Nobody thought that Kessel would be most productive when tucked away on the third line away from the spotlight and the tougher forwards and defensemen. But that’s precisely what has happened, and it’s something neither the Bruins nor the Leafs would have had the luxury of doing.
With the Leafs for sure, and to a lesser extent in Boston, far too much would have been expected of Kessel. He almost certainly would have been playing first-line minutes with both those teams and, more importantly, facing top checking forwards and defense pairings. So what if teams can shut down Malkin and make him almost ineffective in the playoffs? That’s all well and good, but it only works if Kessel isn’t there to pick up the slack and feast on players who are lower on the depth chart.
In fact, there might not be a team in the NHL that could manipulate this situation better than the Penguins have. By throwing Crosby and Malkin out against the top units, it gives Kessel much more favorable matchups and, just as importantly, less ice time. Among forwards, only Crosby has logged more ice time during the regular season and the playoffs than Kessel, but much of that is because of Kessel’s work on the power play. This season, Kessel played just 13:26 per game at even strength and almost four minutes per game on the power play. Compare that to last year with the Maple Leafs when he played 15:05 at even strength and two years ago when he played a whopping 17:30 at even strength.
Power play minutes are far easier to play than even strength and Kessel, who is not going to win any VO2 competition, benefits greatly from playing those reduced minutes at 5-on-5. In this regard, less is most definitely more for Kessel. And it most certainly makes a difference. Chances are, there’s no way Kessel is able to hustle back to the defensive zone to jump on the Jonathan Drouin giveaway just before setting up Carl Hagelin’s goal if he’s logging too much ice time. The excess energy is also on display when you see him driving to the net and getting involved instead of taking the puck, whipping down the wing and shooting it from an area of the ice from which it’s almost impossible to score.
But give Kessel credit here. He has always been a productive playoff performer and he’s proving with the Penguins that he deserves credit for being a big-game player. Along with his linemates, he’s given the Penguins a dimension to their game that makes them very tough to beat. But most of all, he’s making the most of being out of the spotlight, a place he hates. Kessel has proved time and again that he can be a very good secondary player. But put him on the hot seat and place unbearable expectations on him and you’re bound to be disappointed.
Put it all together and you’ve got a player who is in a perfect place. And there’s no way he would have ever found that with his previous two teams.