Bob Grove: Penguins Desperately Need Hornqvist, Kessel To Return To Form

Hornqvist has zero goals in 15 games and Kessel has zero goals in 11 games

Bob Grove
February 23, 2019 - 10:05 am
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) and right wing Patric Hornqvist (72)

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - With only a quarter of the season left heading into Saturday night’s Stadium Series game in Philadelphia, the Penguins are clinging to the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. In fact, with Carolina visiting Dallas three hours before Pittsburgh faces the Flyers, the Penguins could be on the outside looking in when they take their game outside at Lincoln Financial Field.

We said before the season started the Penguins’ success would largely be measured by how well they played defensively; they are pacing to allow more goals than they did a year ago. That’s why coach Mike Sullivan desperately needs two of his biggest point producers to return to form – it can help hide some of the defensive deficiencies that don’t seem likely to go away.

Patric Hornqvist has zero goals in 15 games and zero points in 14 games, which matches the longest points drought of his career. Phil Kessel has zero goals in 11 games and is slowly approaching the career-worst 15-game drought he had as rookie with the Bruins 12 years ago. He’s on pace for just 200 shots, which would be his lowest total in a full NHL season since he was a rookie, and he’s got one power play goal in the last 24 games. One.

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Last season, those two right wingers combined for 63 goals. They’ve got just 36 today, although Hornqvist’s production has also been affected by missing 13 games with injuries.

Perhaps moving Hornqvist to Sidney Crosby’s line, which could happen tonight, will be a spark for the struggling Swede. I’m not too worried about Hornqvist. Production aside, he brings an emotional pitch to the game and a resolute perspective to his physical battles with opponents that is without doubt important to a team that is often too easy to play against. It’s fair to question his recent production, but his approach to playing every night is beyond reproach.

Kessel, on the other hand, is incapable of impacting games beyond what he does with the puck. Those skills can be impressive – in the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Cup runs combined, he led the team in goals (18), power play goals (10), power play points (22) and shots (166). Simply put, Pittsburgh would not have won either Cup without him.

But he is a defensive liability. He does not battle for loose pucks. He does not finish checks. This, of course, is what drives Sullivan crazy. Sullivan can live with it when Kessel is routinely contributing to the Penguins’ goal totals, but Sullivan is right to get frustrated when Kessel is largely missing from the scoresheet.

The 31-year-old is on pace for 83 points this season, which would be his second-highest NHL total after putting up 92 one year ago. But over the last few weeks, he’s added very, very little. Coaches and scorers like to say they don’t worry about slumps as long as the chances are there, but in Kessel’s case right now either those chances are not there or he’s unwilling or unable to finish them. Kessel’s had four longer goal droughts than his current 11-gamer, but he’s never averaged fewer shots during any of them as he has during this one (1.5).

You get the sense that Hornqvist, given his dogged determination, will soon snap out of his funk. You don’t get the sense Kessel is anywhere close to doing that, even though he has done so in the past. He had only two goals in his last 26 regular season games in 2016-17, then put up four goals in the first seven playoff games. When he went through a 14-game drought with the Leafs in January and February, 2011, he snapped out of it with eight goals in the next eight games.

Well-connected reporter Elliotte Friedman reported in early December that general manager Jim Rutherford had been testing the trade waters for Kessel – and that was when Kessel was on pace for 30 goals and 90 points. Given the Penguins’ miserable performance Thursday against San Jose and recent moves by Columbus and Washington, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine similar discussions right now as Monday’s deadline nears, although it would always be easier to move Kessel in the off-season than at the deadline.

So Kessel doesn’t seem likely to be going anywhere right now, but the fact remains he would be an important piece of any long playoff run the Penguins believe they could make this spring – if they get to the playoffs. And 21 more games of this from Kessel would throw that into even more doubt.

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