Phil Kessel has escaped the media madness of Toronto. He’ll soon settle in the considerable shade cast by Sidney Crosby’s shadow. The Toronto effect won’t wear off instantly, however. Kessel’s performance this season will be scrutinized like crazy as he joins the sport’s highest-profile player on a line.
That’s right. It’s confirmed Kessel will open the Pittsburgh Penguins’ camp on Crosby’s wing. Coach Mike Johnston told the team website to expect Kessel “on the right side with Sid to begin with.” Could Kessel end up with a different center? Sure, but it would only be Evgeni Malkin, an equally plum partner. And it’s highly unlikely the Pens break camp with news “Kessel and Crosby just couldn’t get on the same page.”
It’s thus time to ask a fun question. Assuming Crosby is his center, how many goals will Kessel score in his first season with Pittsburgh?
First off, is there any way Kessel’s limp, 25-goal curtain call in Toronto was a sign of things to come? Doubtful. It’s scary to see him fail to score 30 for the first time in a non-shortened season since 2007-08, sure. But, as I’ve said in this space before, Kessel’s shooting percentage was also his lowest since 2007-08. That suggests his goal total was at least partially a fluke. He also attempted lower-percentage shots from the perimeter during a lost season that didn’t exactly inspire him to drive the net with aplomb.
Now Kessel joins Crosby, the top all-around pivot in the game, a master of generating offense who should put Kessel in better positions to score – and far more often. At least, that’s the theory. To get a sense of Crosby’s effect on his wingers, lets have a look at the man who’s spent the most time on Crosby’s right side over the past several seasons: Pascal Dupuis.
Dupuis has been Crosby’s usual right winger whenever both players are healthy, as rarely as that is, since 2010-11. Dupuis’ four best seasons in shots per game? His past four. Dupuis’ four best seasons in Corsi For percentage? His past four. The math obviously isn’t perfect here, as I haven’t isolated every game and shift Dupuis played with Crosby, but the cumulative effect gives us an approximation of how playing with ‘Sid’ more often than not puffs up one’s stats. Dupuis simply being in his prime and producing more scoring chances doesn’t explain the surge, either, as Dupuis’ career-best run started in his age-31 season, when he should’ve been declining. So while it’s no stunning revelation to say “Best center in world makes winger better,” it’s still useful in the Kessel examination to see how playing with Crosby elevates a good but not great winger.
Kessel, on the other hand, has been a offensive monster with no one close to Crosby centering him. Kessel has more goals than every player except Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry over the past five seasons. In Kessel’s six seasons as a Leaf, he ranked in the top 10 in shots on goal every time.
So how many more scoring chances will Kessel get now that he’s Crosby’s trigger man? Dupuis shot the puck on goal 1,224 times in 587 games before the 2010-11 juncture, or 2.09 times per contest. From 2010-11 on: 666 times in 266 games, or 2.50 per contest, that’s roughly a 20 percent increase. It’s an even bigger jump if you only take Dupuis’ past three seasons, in which Crosby was healthy and in the lineup far more often. But we’ll keep it at 20 percent for the sake of this exercise. So what if Kessel shoots the puck 20 percent more, and what if his shooting percentage corrects to his career norm?
Kessel has 2,278 shots on net in 668 games, or 3.41 per contest. Increase the average by 20 percent and you get 4.09 shots per game. Multiply it by 82 and Kessel winds up with a career-best 336 shots. Now let’s say Kessel scores at his career-norm rate of 10.8 percent instead of last year’s paltry 8.9. That would land him a 36-goal campaign in 2015-16.
If we shave off Kessel’s first few years in Boston and use his more current shooting profile, which has been far more prolific in Toronto, the 20 percent multiplier projects to a 367-shot season and, rounding up, 40 goals. Keeping in mind I’m not showing all the work and every decimal place here, that’s an approximate prediction for what Kessel would score if Crosby has the same effect on him as he did on Dupuis. (I didn’t shave any of Dupuis’ early seasons off his average, as his shooting profile didn’t change much year to year).
Does 40 still seem a bit low to you? Maybe because Kessel will start 2015-16 three years younger than Dupuis was when he earned regular duty on Sid’s line? It’s tempting to go wild and predict 50, but only four players who started a season 28 or older have hit that number in the past 16 seasons, and all four are Hall of Famers or Future Hall of Famers: Pavel Bure (twice), Jaromir Jagr (twice), Jarome Iginla and Alex Ovechkin (twice). So Kessel would have to join elite company to explode for 50. A leap into the 40s for the first time would still be an impressive feat.
How about an over/under of 42.5 goals, then? Share your predictions and rationale in the comments section below.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin