Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Mack: Keep Your Kessel Rumors Off My Lawn

Despite not being a Sullivan favorite, Kessel does his job

Chris Mack
December 07, 2018 - 5:31 am

While a 4-point game last night that ended a seven game goal-less drought should have Phil Kessel back in Head Coach Mike Sullivan's good graces, the lack of warm fuzzies between the two is well documented. 

Related:

As trade rumors swirled earlier this week regarding Kessel, I don't know about you, but my hopes increased that there's never an extended trip to the doghouse for Phil the Thrill. Because I'd hate to have to connect the dots again between a guy who's not quite Sullivan's 'type' and a trade the organization may have been strong-armed in to and would later regret.

A pair of Stanley Cup rings will do a lot for anyone's reputation. Especially after you've walked into a room full of incredible talent and found a way to get it to respond the way the guy before you couldn't. 

Sullivan is always going to have a special place in Penguins' history. A two-time champion, he was brought in to pick up the pieces of the failed Mike Johnston era, to help that talent fulfill their expectation - some would say obligation - to win it all, and in doing so has become a Pittsburgh fan favorite despite an affinity for the Red Sox & Patriots and a chowdahhh-head accent that doesn't quite jive with our yinzery-smooth ability to drop entire syllables but never turn an 'r' into an 'ahhh.'

The problem with this affinity for "Sully" and the mononymous moniker that most of us use to refer to him, is that it doesn't properly convey a simple truth: If Sullivan doesn't think you fit the mold of what he's looking for in his team, you're going to end up in his doghouse. And that doghouse seems to have become a bit of a purgatory over the last year or so for Penguins with one foot out the door. 

While none of them have both the talent and experience of Kessel, there are multiple case studies in players going from Sully's Doghouse, to the trade block, to another team.

Last winter, it was Ryan Reaves who ended up on the outside looking in. Despite providing the physical presence General Manager Jim Rutherford felt was lacking when he traded Oskar Sundqvist and a 1st Round pick to St. Louis for the bruising winger, Reaves often found himself either out of the lineup or languishing on the far end of the bench. Following just 58 games as a Penguin in which he averaged just 6:45 of ice time/game. Less than a year after being acquired, Reaves was scoring the Western Conference-clinching goal and sending the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final. His time as a Penguin lasted just eight months.

Reaves didn't fit Sully's mold. So he ended up in the doghouse. Then he was gone.

Another piece that was shipped out in the big trade deadline deal for Derick Brassard last spring was another resident of Sully's Doghouse: Ian Cole.

Cole had been a part of those two Cup-winning teams, but Sullivan grew tired of Cole's willingness to speak with the media, and despite being a +8 over 54 postseason games with the Penguins - during which his 18 minutes of ice time/game were crucial to Pittsburgh victories - he was exiled as well. First to the end of the bench, then to Sully's Doghouse in the pressbox, and finally Columbus via Ottawa.

At least in the case of Cole, Sullivan could make the argument that he'd seen plenty of the player.

As for the curious case of Daniel Sprong, well... 

Sprong was given just 42 games at the NHL level, only 16 of them coming this year after Rutherford insisted he'd be a given a chance to prove his scoring ability in juniors would translate to the NHL if played with other offensive talent. In those 16 games he averaged just 8:34 of icetime, most of which came on the 4th line.

It didn't matter that Sprong was just 21 years old and had shown flashes of offensive brilliance. 

It didn't matter that Sprong wasn't here to be anyone's best friend, wasn't here to backcheck, and wasn't here to do anything other than score goals.

He had a tough preseason, so he was yanked off the top line, put down at the end of the bench with the pluggers, then in the pressbox, and completed the tour of Sully's Doghouse when he was traded to Anaheim earlier this week in exchange for defenseman Marcus Pettersson.

On his second shift with the Ducks, with his first shot, Sprong did what he's supposed to do: He sniped a bad angle, top corner goal over Corey Crawford's shoulder.

Too bad he didn't play enough of a "200-foot game," huh?

This brings us back to the always somewhat-strained relationship between Sullivan and Kessel, and the ridiculous rumor that Rutherford has again been listening to offers for the 31-year old right wing. The ridiculousness of this story is not that it's being reported - Elliotte Friedman is a respected, national hockey reporter for Canada's Sportsnet. He knows of what he speaks. He knows, as well as everyone else across the NHL, that Rutherford has about 73,284 irons in the fire right now in the event he has to pull the trigger on another deal to awaken a team that, despite a pair of impressive back-to-back wins at PPG Paints Arena this week, is still on the search for consistency a third of the way through the season.

Let's be real clear, though. 

Kessel should NOT be one of those irons.

Phil isn't here to be anyone's best friend, isn't here to backcheck, and isn't here to do anything other than score goals. He's successfully done that since arriving in Pittsburgh, and was arguably Sullivan's biggest tool in rebuilding an offensive attack that went from flaming out by scoring just eight goals in Johnston's five-game postseason tenure to raising the Stanley Cup twice.

Kessel, much like Sprong, has one job: Score goals.

Kessel has been, is now, and will be, next to Sidney Crobsy, Evgeni Malkin, & Kris Letang, at the core of this team when they next hoist the Stanley Cup.