By: Jim Meinecke
When news broke earlier this year on July 1st that Phil Kessel was going to be in a Penguins’ jersey, the fan base broke into a state of euphoria. That continued to be the case as people read the details of the trade and realized Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta were still in Penguins’ jerseys also. If it is possible for a player to be a cult hero before playing his first game, Phil Kessel has managed that feat ahead of the 2015-16 season. Should fans be excited? Of course. The reasons why, however, take a bit more time to explain, but I am going to take a stab at it below.
Much has been made of Phil Kessel’s playing weight and shape during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While much of that was overblown, it was clear Kessel wanted to refocus on his nutrition and exercise regimen this offseason. A few weeks prior to being traded to the Penguins, Kessel’s camp reached out to Gary Roberts. Roberts is widely regarded for his training and has worked with many stars including Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Jordan Staal. In Seth Rorabaugh’s article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier in September, Roberts said:
“I think everybody in general is seeing that at [age] 30 a decline in players’ performance if they’re not doing the right things off the ice. I think Phil recognizes he needs to do a little more off the ice in order to keep him healthy and to give him [a chance] to be an elite player for a long period of time. I think he’s leaner. I think he’s in better condition than he’s been.”
It has been reported that Kessel was able to shed 13 pounds in the offseason. As a player who recorded the third-fastest time in the Fastest Skater competition at last year’s All-Star Skills competition, a leaner version of Phil Kessel on the rush will cause many sleepless nights for defensemen around the league.
For how much firepower and star power the Penguins had in recent years, the power play has let them down in many ways, specifically last season. They did manage to still finish tenth in the league at a respectable 19.3% clip, but much of that number was skewed to the first two months of the season. The unit really struggled in the second half of the season, and one of the big reasons was passing up on too many shots. As the old adage says, shoot the puck and good things will happen. Phil Kessel finished tied for 17th last season with 25 power play points, one behind Evgeni Malkin. He was also on a Toronto Maple Leafs power play that finished 26th in the league. The sky is the limit for this talented group. The preliminary setup has Patric Hornqvist in front of the net, Phil Kessel on the left half wall, Evgeni Malkin on the right half wall, Sidney Crosby in the slot, and Kris Letang at the point. This article from Japer’s Rink back in 2013 does an excellent job of explaining the 1-3-1 powerplay:
The 1-3-1 power play is a high-risk, high-reward power-play, reliant upon skilled players making good, quick decisions. The set-up, as the name would indicate, features a point man at the top of the zone, a trio spread from board-to-board above the faceoff dots, and a fifth skater down low. This strategy creates four triangles to pass around and take one-timer shots from. This system forces the defense to focus on the middle players causing the [penalty kill] to shrink. As a result, it can be very, very effective.
Think Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin on the Washington Capitals powerplay. Kessel and Malkin will have the ability to take deadly one-time chances from the half walls. It is why putting Crosby in the slot makes so much sense because defenders will need to honor his shot as well. As always, it may take some time for this unit to click, but it has the ability to be deadly this season.
Shoot to Thrill
The Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have always been a team that excels offensively and at creating scoring chances. Additionally, last season the Penguins finished tied for fourth in the league at 31.6 shots per game. The addition of Phil Kessel only makes the rich richer:
Ever since Kessel joined the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2009-10 season, he has been in the top ten of the league in shots each season and will generally drive offense. How about Phil Kessel’s actual shot? It has been talked about a lot, but the best description of what makes it so successful comes from a James Mirtle article in the Globe and Mail from 2014:
What Kessel does have, however, are some deceptive talents – like that lower-body strength and the speed it gives him – that truly set him apart.
A good example is Kessel’s use of one of the most flexible and unique composite sticks in the NHL, with a fine-tuned kick point low, down near the blade, that allows the shaft to bend like a rubber band and that gives him one of the hardest-to-stop shots in the world.
I enjoyed looking at Phil Kessel’s heat charts as well. They are a good snapshot of where he likes to take most of his shots. You will see the 2011-12 season where he had a career high of 82 points, as well as last season. There a lot of similarities with many shots close to the net and at the right face-off dot:
Finally, this short highlight reel from Kessel’s first years in Toronto show how lively his shots are coming off of his stick, but how effortless it looks as well:
Phil Kessel looks like he will be starting on a line with Sidney Crosby, but no one will surprised if he ends up with Evgeni Malkin before the season is over. Even if Malkin is Kessel’s consolation prize, playing with one of the two, who are both top five players in the NHL today, will be new territory for Kessel. Marc Savard, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Tyler Bozak were the names most frequently associated with Phil Kessel previously. Particularly in Boston, those are respectable centers, but none are close to the same level as Crosby or Malkin. The ability to make plays and create chances on the rush will be exciting to see, no matter who Phil Kessel ends up playing with this season.
As of last night, hockey season is officially back and it is a good time to remind everyone that Phil Kessel is indeed a Pittsburgh Penguin. If being a Penguins’ fan wasn’t exciting enough with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, Phil Kessel is the best pure goal scoring winger in Pittsburgh since Marian Hossa…scary. Enjoy watching what will surely be some exciting hockey this season boys and girls.