It is going to be a long summer. For hockey fans, it always is. It is especially long for hockey fans whose teams are eliminated from the playoffs early. There is always speculation on free agents, AHL call-ups, and trades. Many anxiously await July 1 to find out which free agents land where, and the speculation dissipates with the signings.
Trades are different though. Rumors can spring up out of nothing, and there is no telling when they will end (unless the trade actually happens, or the organization explicitly says it won’t happen).
After just three seasons in Pittsburgh, there has been a recent flood of rumors that Phil Kessel will be traded this offseason. Reasons vary from a lack of playoff production to Kessel allegedly phoning in his defensive game in practice, with other reasons sprinkled in. The most eyebrow-raising allegation is that the relationship between Kessel and Mike Sullivan has turned bitter. While this may be alarming, it is important to realize it is not uncommon for a coach and player to be upset with each other.
Few people are privy to what goes on inside Penguins practices, and even fewer have eyes and ears inside the locker room. The Pittsburgh sports media cite Kessel’s dissatisfaction with his linemates as a main source of tension. For much of the season, he played on the third line with Riley Sheahan, and later Derick Brassard. Sheahan netted 32 points this season, and an injured Brassard had only 8 in an injury-plagued start to his Penguin career.
Evgeni Malkin would have been Kessel’s ideal center and playing on the second line is preferable to playing on the third. However, Mike Sullivan saw that others fit better on Geno’s right wing and that Phil was fine on the third line. Maybe he was wrong, but a career-high 92 points by Kessel is difficult to argue against. Then again, 42 of those points were scored on the power play — with Malkin and Crosby on the ice.
Taking a brief look at the past
The HBK line was a third line. The HBK line was the third line. The trio of Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel powered Pittsburgh to two Stanley Cups. Nobody complained about being on the third line then because that third line was producing at a first line rate.
If Phil Kessel has complaints about playing on the third line on a team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, he has a right to be a little upset; he is an elite, top-line scorer. However, Mike Sullivan has a right to make the final decision. If he decides Kessel is a better fit with Brassard, then Kessel is a better fit with Brassard. There comes a point when personal preference is set aside for the good of the team.
For those who think Phil Kessel’s opinion matters more than Mike Sullivan’s, think back to 2013. Think back to Jarome Iginla. He was brought in by then-GM Ray Shero to play on Crosby’s right wing, but Crosby preferred to have Pascal Dupuis in that spot instead. Iginla was improperly utilized in his brief stint with the Penguins, which led to him, and his team, underachieving. Head Coach Dan Bylsma let the players dictate who played on what line.
Dan Bylsma only lasted one more season in Pittsburgh after he began to allow that.
- Pittsburgh’s shortcomings in 2018 are in no way the fault of Phil Kessel. Anybody who thinks that he will be traded because of his lack of postseason production is grasping at straws. Nobody would trade him away with that being the only case against him.
- Players and coaches disagree. A lot. If they agreed on everything, there would be no need to even have coaches because the players would just coach themselves. If the relationship between Kessel and Sullivan is strained, that’s okay. There is a lot of time over the summer to step back and regroup. Both men are professionals and can come back to training camp with differences set aside.
- At $6.8 million, Phil Kessel is a steal. Remember, Toronto still retains $1.2 million of his contract. If the Penguins traded to replace Phil Kessel, they would put themselves in salary cap jeopardy and leave holes elsewhere in their lineup.
While nobody can see the future, it’s safe to say that Phil Kessel will remain a Pittsburgh Penguin. All of the rumors can easily be debunked with logic and a level head. If anyone on earth had a level head, it is James E. Rutherford, Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In short, relax, it’s summertime. Enjoy the Stanley Cup Final and stop worrying about Phil Kessel.