The Pittsburgh Penguins brass is eager to integrate speedy sniper Phil Kessel into their star-studded lineup, where he’ll be matched up with “probably the two best players in the world.”
By Shelly Anderson Given his scholarly demeanor, Mike Johnston didn’t get caught up in the shock wave of Pittsburgh’s big off-season trade. That doesn’t mean the Penguins coach was unmoved by the acquisition of sniper Phil Kessel from Toronto. While some had stars – or maybe question marks – in their eyes, Johnston had goals on the brain. Pittsburgh acquired a world-class winger to play with one of its star centers, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Not a prospect with unlimited potential, not an aging star hoping to catch fire once more, but an established finisher with five 30-goal seasons still in his prime at 27, two months younger than Crosby. “That was a need we had as a team,” Johnston said. “I just know his speed, his shot. His speed, whether it’s off the rush, in the offensive zone or on the power play, all three of those he has an ability to help us. Today’s game is all about speed.”
Kessel was a little less reserved, especially about the prospect of wearing matching sweaters with Crosby and Malkin.
“They’re probably the two best players in the world,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I’m thrilled to be able to get to play with them.” Johnston and GM Jim Rutherford claim they won’t determine whether Kessel will line up to the right of Crosby or Malkin until training camp. That won’t be the only big question enveloping Kessel, whose resume is stocked not only with goals but also with questions about his work ethic and attitude. Rutherford repeatedly noted that he and his staff did “a lot of homework” and were satisfied they weren’t getting a player laden with baggage, mostly because Kessel will have less pressure as one of many luminaries on his new club. “There’s going to be a lot less media attention in Pittsburgh,” Kessel told the Tribune-Review. “I’m real excited to be there.” Johnston, favoring personal impressions over preconceived notions, is taking the same approach he used when he took the job last summer and met with players individually – even travelling to Moscow to engage Malkin. “What I want to do is get to know Phil as a person, talk to him, see what makes him tick,” Johnston said. “In coaching – it’s the same with the Steelers or Pirates – you try and get the most out of each player.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the August 17 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.