There’s a lot of city miles on the 28-year old Phil Kessel. Lot of slings and arrows have been shot his way. When Kessel was drafted 5th overall in 2006 (the top 5 picks were Erik Johnson by the Blues, Jordan Stall by the Pens, Jonathan Toews by the Blackhawks, Nicklas Backstrom by the Capitals, then Kessel) by the Bruins, he was seen as the savior for a Bruins team and the new face of American hockey among forwards. Being the focus of attention in a tough media market like Boston did not bode well for the shy and media-reticent Kessel. After the 21-year old Kessel scored 36 goals in 2008-09, he was flipped to Toronto for a series of high-end draft choices.
If you want to talk about going out of the frying pan and into the fire, then moving from Boston to Toronto as a shy hockey player would be it. Now Kessel was not only viewed as the Next Big Thing to bring the hockey-mad Leafs fans a Stanley Cup, but he had the external (and probably internal) expectations of all the draft choices surrendered in lieu of his arrival. Toronto is the heart of the NHL and by being Canada’s largest city, the scrutiny and muckraking associated with its media is nearly off the charts.
There were many in their media that were relentlessly riding Kessel and framing him as a team cancer and malcontent. For a guy that apparently does not like being the center of attention, this constant pressure can result in a media meltdown, like this:
One of the main bandleaders was noted hack, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun.
Phil Kessel traded for next to nothing – and it’s a good deal for the Leafs. Really he had to go.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) July 1, 2015
So on July 1st, 2015, Phil Kessel was released from his own personal hell of six seasons under the microscope in Toronto. He was traded to Pittsburgh for some draft picks and a couple of young players (Kaspari Kapanen and Scott Harrington), plus Nick Spaling, in a trade that at first I was not in favor of. His story had been written in two cities and carried forward with him to Pittsburgh — he’s a locker room malcontent — and I thought he would poison the room.
But now after seeing him comport himself in the regular season, I see that he is either extremely shy or has some form of social anxiety disorder. Here in Pittsburgh, a much softer touch of a media market, he doesn’t have to be The Man. He doesn’t even have to be the second man, third man, maybe not even the fourth man, as Crosby/Malkin/Letang/Fleury had those spots covered. All he was asked to do was score goals.
Much like the rest of team, Kessel was handcuffed under substitute teacher, Mike Johnston. Once the Penguins had their shackles taken off in December, Kessel slowly started to resemble the sniper he was touted when he was traded here. He finished strong in March with 6 goals-10 assists in 16 games, but more importantly developed an enviable chemistry with Karl Hagelin and Nick Bonino to become the Penguins strongest line late in the season and into the playoffs.
His performance in the playoffs to date, though, has completely justified the trade. This is what he was brought here for and his 9 goals-9 assists for 18 points in 18 games (while averaging less than 17:30 of ice time per game) has made him a cult hero among fans. The speed in which he flies down the wing, whether carrying the puck himself or receiving a long breakout pass, is a sight to behold. His overall frame and stout face belies the speed generated from his lower body. Kessel has been rated as one of the top 10 fastest skaters in the NHL in years past and it is on display each night.
Kessel is still under contract for the next four years at a cap hit of $6.8M (the Leafs contribute $1.2M each year to the Pens as part of the giveaway). Maybe Kessel has found a soft spot to call home. Maybe the locker room accepts him for what he is and overlooks what he isn’t. Here, Kessel doesn’t have to be a leader of men. He just has to score goals and be himself. Which now Kessel is maybe more comfortable being.