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Penguins Spotlight: Phil Kessel

You might not have thought heading out of last year that the Penguins’ big problem was top six scoring. After all, Crosby and Malkin when healthy were over a point per game, even in a down year Chris Kunitz put up 17 goals, Brandon Sutter scored 21, Patric Hornqvist netted 25 goals. Sure, there are some missing wingers there but with Paul Martin set to depart and the injury history of Kris Letang, you would have thought the blue line was priority #1.

Well, you aren’t GM Jim Rutherford.

Kessel didn’t cost as much as you’d think for one of the league’s premier marksmen. This is also a player who ended up costing the Leafs themselves Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin, or the equivalent picks that became them if you prefer. Only Kasperi Kapanen is considered anything of a prospect, though it depends what the Leafs do with the #1 pick they also got in next year’s draft. That’ll happen when you’re signed for a ton of money from now until man walks again on the moon, which Kessel is.

Whatever the noise in Toronto around Kessel was, and good lord was there enough of that, he scored. And scored. And scored. Since his first year in Toronto, Kessel has the 9th most goals in the league. All of the players ahead of him at least played on multiple playoff teams. Kessel played with Tyler Bozak, who definitely can put his pads on correctly. The thinking was that putting him with one of the very best centers in the game in Evgeni Malkin would see him simply go nuclear.

Still waiting on that mushroom cloud.

Looking at the numbers, everything is not pointing in the right direction nor is it something you can just chalk up to luck. Kessel only has 12 goals, on pace for 25 which would be his lowest since his Boston days, though the same he managed last year. But scoring the same amount of goals on Malkin’s wing as Bozak’s is not what had all the Yinzers pouring Iron City over their heads in July when the trade was made (which is better than trying to drink that crap). If the Pens looked hard, they would see other things were trending down last year too.

Throughout his Leafs career, Kessel averaged over 4.5 attempts at even-strength. That slipped to 3.9 last year. This year’s it’s 3.5. As we’ve seen with Toews this year, a drop of just one attempt per game can mean a lot. In Toronto he avearged over 2.5 shots on goal per game. Now it’s 2.1. In Toronto Kessel averaged over three scoring chances per game, until last year when that dropped to 2.15 and is essentially the same this year.

Beyond the numbers, as a Leaf Kessel wasn’t a float-to-space, wait for a pass sniper. Kessel had the puck on his stick most of the time. Bozak is hardly a great playmaker. Kessel was creating his own shot most shifts. In Pittsburrgh, Malkin has the puck when he’s on the ice. Crosby is the same, so a switch to that line might not make much difference. Kessel is still adjusting to doing most of his work away from the puck and finding space to get a pass. It wasn’t his game before. That might help explain the fall in the number of chances and shots he’s getting.

Can Kessel do it? Probably, and there really isn’t an escape here. He’s got a wicked shot and a quick release, so he can make those passes work. But it wouldn’t be using the full spectrum of his skills. Kessel is better off with a center who does the defensive work, and then basically gets out of the way. That center isn’t coming to The Confluence anytime soon. You wonder about the thinking in the first place.

But again, you aren’t Jim Rutherford.