If 'Playoff Phil' Doesn’t Show Again, It Should Mean The End of Kessel As A Penguin

If he isn’t producing when it matters most, what are you paying him for?

Matt Koll
March 27, 2019 - 12:46 pm
Phil Kessel

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nice guy. Tries hard. Loves the game.

That’s it how goes, right?

I mean, the guy has eaten hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup.

But if Phil Kessel is a relative no-show in the playoffs again this year, it should mark the end of his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I’m as much a fan of the lovable Phil Kessel as the next guy but at some point you have to be realistic and look at things in the bigger picture.

Part of that picture is that Kessel is a rare bird in multiple ways. Not only does he have a quirky personality but he’s also one of the few players in the league that can get away with having a very one dimensional game.

That one dimension, as we all know, is scoring. If Kessel isn’t showing up on the offensive stat sheet, he’s not doing much else for you.

He’s done it better than most in the league over his career but Kessel’s 24 goals this season ranks just inside the top 70 in the NHL, although his 77 points are tied for 22nd.

It may be an antiquated hockey stat but he’s a -19 this season and is also shooting less often. With five regular season games to go, Kessel is 62 shots on goal behind his total from the 2017-18 season and over 100 behind his shots attempted total from ’17-’18.

For the new age crowd, his even strength Corsi and Fenwick numbers have also dipped.

While the on-ice numbers slowly dissipate, his contract numbers are looking increasingly ugly.

Kessel is due $6.8 million against the cap for the rest of his contract which ends after the 2021-22 season, according to Spotrac.

That cap number is fourth on the team behind Crosby, Malkin and Letang and Kessel isn’t getting any younger at 31 years old.

You know exactly what you’re getting with Phil. That’s been the mindset since the Penguins traded for him and quite honestly, it’s worked. The team has won two Stanley Cups with him.

But what Kessel did in the postseason last year, or didn’t do really, changed the whole “you know exactly what you’re getting” thought for me.

Related: Penguins Surge To 5-2 Win Over Rangers

What you expect and what you got from Kessel in playoffs past was a productive, timely goal scorer who wasn’t afraid to fire it on net and did so in a lethal way.

In his first Stanley Cup run with the Penguins in 2015-16, Kessel posted 22 points in 24 games with 10 goals. In his second in 2016-17, Kessel again was almost at a point per game pace with 23 points in 25 games with 8 goals.

Then last season…things changed.

Kessel was virtually invisible, scoring just one goal in the Penguins’ nine postseason games while only registering 18 shots on goal (as compared to 98 in 24 games in ’15-’16 and 68 in 25 games in ’16-’17).

Many speculated that Kessel was hurt during the postseason last year, one of those situations in which an injury comes to light after the season ends and there is no risk in revealing what a player was dealing with.

But the season ended and there was no revelation. Kessel denied any injury and no further information was gathered about why he wasn’t himself.

As the postseason approaches, I can’t help but to think that if Kessel repeats that kind of performance, he quickly becomes overvalued.

Kessel has struggled to become a regular top six forward this season. He’s gone through lulls in scoring and while injuries haven’t helped, he couldn’t seem to find chemistry with the different linemates he’s had.

The Penguins have had young goal scorers in Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger burst on the scene and appear to be carrying the future torch offensively behind Malkin and Crosby.

We already know the history Kessel has had with Mike Sullivan and how the two have butted heads over his play. Sullivan is a major proponent of players having the two-way, “200 foot game” and Kessel’s game is far from that.

It was reported that general manager Jim Rutherford was listening to trade offers for Phil Kessel in the offseason heading into this year. Trade talks involving Kessel aren’t a foreign concept.

All of these factors line up for heightened pressure on Phil heading into the playoffs. They need him to be an offensive catalyst or else he’s an overpaid player on the back half of his career on a roster whose core of Malkin, Crosby and Letang is already 31 or older.

They’ve also got a slew of previously mentioned young talent waiting to take on bigger roles to complement the stars.

If you aren’t paying Kessel to produce when you need him most, then what are you paying him for? To give his teammates a chuckle every once in a while?

Kessel to Pittsburgh has been a resounding success. He’s beloved by his teammates. He’s beloved by Penguins fans. He’s incredibly easy to root for.

But that doesn’t mean you hang on to him past the point of his worth.

I would guess the haul in return would still be sizable if they parted ways after the season, his 77 points (and more to come I’m sure before the season ends) would still be enticing to many teams.    

Penguins fans may hate to hear it or think about it. But to me at least, the writing is on the wall that if “Playoff Phil” doesn’t show up to the party again in April, it may mean the end of his time as a Penguin.

As it should.

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