The Pittsburgh Penguins have moved Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel off each other’s lines. Too soon or the right decision?
Can Phil Kessel’s demotion to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ second line be surprising and unsurprising simultaneously?
On one hand, any time a goal scorer of Kessel’s ilk gets pulled away from an elite playmaking center, it’s a shock. No one will ever mistake Kessel for a complete player. But the few tools he does possess in that belt sure are effective. Kessel has great speed, soft hands and an electric wrist shot. So when we consider his skill set, it feels crazy to imagine him failing to gel with any great offensive player, let alone Sidney Crosby, one of the world’s best.
On the other hand, plenty of people predicted Kessel and Crosby would fit together like a Lego brick and a jigsaw puzzle piece: awkwardly. Kessel is a sniper but prefers to generate chances for himself off the rush. There aren’t too many Kessel one-timer highlights, right? It feels like every Kessel goal comes from him gaining the zone and uncorking his trademark wrister from the right wing. His first tally as a Penguin:
He manufactures that play by himself. He and Crosby each function best as the primary puck carrier on a line, so they weren’t a dream fit. Most prognosticators viewed Evgeni Malkin as the natural yin to Kessel’s yang in the first place. Now Penguins coach Mike Johnston will deploy them together.
Will Malkin make magical music with Kessel? The odds at least seem higher. Malkin turned trigger man James Neal into a 40-goal scorer. I say “turned” because Neal never bested 27 before his Pittsburgh tenure and hasn’t done so after it, either. He has a great shot, just like Kessel does, and Malkin consistently did a good job finding Neal.
That said, calling Kessel a Neal clone would be lazy. Kessel has the same shooting strengths, but he’s a different player. He’s less gritty, of course. He’s also faster, a better puckhandler and a better lateral mover. So it’s important to note Malkin isn’t just getting the equivalent of Neal back. We can’t assume harmony on that basis alone. But it’s a positive knowing Malkin gains an elite shooter on his line.
Another plus, as pointed out in the summer by NHL.com’s Dan Rosen: Malkin plays a more east-west game, which suits Kessel’s style better than Crosby’s fast, furious and deceptively physical north-south game. The latter actually catered to Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz well when the pair were healthy and bit younger.
Whatever happens, the Pens have nothing to lose right now. General manager Jim Rutherford put the heat on this club by acquiring Kessel plus $6.8 million of his $8-million cap hit and waving goodbye to blueliners Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff in free agency. The Pens were depending on a drastically improved offense to fuel them a year after they finished 19th in goals and qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the season. Starting the year 3-4-0 and 27th in offense is alarming. Something has to change.
So maybe pairing Kessel with Malkin helps. Or maybe the whole line juggle is an overreaction and Kessel ends up with Sid again. For what it’s worth, Kessel has scored on just 8.3 percent of his shots and he’s a 10.8 percent career shooter. There’s some bad luck there. Per puckalytics.com, Kessel and Crosby have played 86 minutes together at 5-on-5, generating 89 shot attempts versus 85 against, good for a 51.1 Corsi percentage. Kessel and Tyler Bozak played 4,530 minutes together 5-on-5 over six years in Toronto, good for a 47.1 Corsi percentage. So the numbers suggest Kessel is part of a more effective unit with Crosby than he was as a Leaf, even though he and Crosby don’t have the goals and points to show for it.
On the other hand, Crosby’s career 5-on-5 Corsi percentage without Kessel is 53.5. That implies he’s better off without Kessel. So maybe we should look at the line change as more for Crosby’s benefit than Kessel’s. The narrative in Pittsburgh should be “how do we get Crosby going?” instead of “how do we get Kessel going?”
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