CHICAGO – It was extremely early in the proceedings, but Derek Stepan of the Arizona Coyotes clearly won the day on Day 2 of the NHL’s North American player media tour. He was asked about his team’s acquisition of Phil Kessel and had the following to say: “The other day, someone said to me, ‘He’s an interesting cat,’ ” Stepan said. “Yeah, well, we’ve got a lot of dogs on our team so we can use a cat.”
That one got a ton of laughs. But it was an interesting take on Kessel, a player that nobody seems to want and everybody seems to want. The notion is that Kessel has a real chance to flourish with the Coyotes because you could argue that for the first time in his career, he’s not in a market that is filled with pressure. In Arizona, Kessel will definitely be able to fly under the radar and score his 30 goals for a team that desperately needs him to do just that. The Coyotes last season were led in goals by Galchenyuk and Brad Richardson with 19, which tied them for 123rd in the league.
There are few more polarizing players in hockey than Phil Kessel. If you want a guy who is going to lead the way and show your young players how to be the best they can be, he’s probably not your guy. But here’s a newsflash: the NHL is still about scoring more goals than your opponent. And few do it better than Kessel. For that matter, he might actually be one of the most underrated passers in the league as well. There is little dispute that he’ll help the Coyotes, who finished fifth-worst in the NHL with 213 goals last season and had the sixth-worst power play and still managed to finish just four points out of a playoff spot.
“In the winger department, we could have used a veteran scorer and I think we found one, and if anyone has proven that he can do it consistently, it’s this guy,” Stepan said. “Regardless of the outside noise, he shows up and scores goals and that’s what we need.”
Even though Kessel’s goal production dropped to 27 last season after he scored 34 in 2017-18, he’s a point-per-game guy who is going to get every opportunity to create offense in every situation in Arizona. He hasn’t missed a game in more than nine seasons, despite (or maybe even because of) the fact that he doesn’t spend his entire off-season in the gym. And in a place where his every shift is not going to be dissected, Kessel will be free of the intense spotlight, all the while playing for a coach he really likes in Rick Tocchet.
Bashing Kessel has become something of a cottage industry in NHL circles. Part of the reason why he’s so awkward publicly is that he’s intensely shy. Not being a workout maniac works for him, but flies in the face of what hockey people believe players should be doing. When he sold his house in Pittsburgh recently, people had a field day with the fact that it had a huge home theatre with one chair in it.
“Is that real?” Stepan said. “I’ll have to ask him. I thought that was a joke. I didn’t think that was a real thing.”
The other side of the trade is the Penguins, who picked up an enigma in Alex Galchenyuk, a player who lasted one season in Arizona before being moved. The relationship between Kessel and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was, well, a little rocky. That has fed into the notion that Kessel doesn’t always play well with others, but a player who won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Kessel and knows a thing or two about character doesn’t agree.
“I loved playing with him,” Sidney Crosby said. “Obviously, he’s a unique personality and that kind of thing, but I think what he’s able to do, the talent and the plays he’s able to make, he can change the game with one shot. I definitely enjoyed playing with him and I know that things happen, and things with players and coaches doesn’t always go perfectly and maybe that’s magnified a little bit with him, but I loved playing with him. He was a lot of fun to be around. We have a couple of Stanley Cups together and a lot of great memories.”
Kessel won’t be the only Phil in Arizona who will be counted on to improve things on the offensive side of the puck. The Coyotes also hired former Buffalo Sabres coach Phil Housley, who ran an outstanding power play in Nashville as an assistant prior to getting the job in Buffalo.
“I think both the Phils can help with the power play,” Stepan said. “(GM John) Chayka is not just going to sit back and wait. Take a category…we didn’t score a lot of goals and he went out and got someone who can do it. It helps us push the pace, too.”
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