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Phil Kessel’s Quirky-Good Season

Phil Kessel. Sniper. Stanley Cup Champion.
Photo from NHL.com

Phil Kessel, by all accounts, is quirky.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, as far be it from me to cast aspersions about someone’s quirkiness.  But it’s fitting for Kessel that he’s quietly having a very good season with the Penguins, while doing it in an odd manner.

During last year’s regular season, Kessel was a mild disappointment with ‘only’ 26 goals and 33 assists in 82 games.  It was expected that Kessel would ignite with all the other offensive talent on the team, not produce just 59 points in 82 games.  For the $6.8M cap hit the Pens were responsible for, it seemed underwhelming.

And then the playoffs happened.  His 22 points in 24 games, including 10 goals, made him a cult hero and Pittsburgh legend.  Now Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion and inspires countless numbers of memes all over social media.

Kessel came into this season with his place on the league’s best 3rd line intact — the infamous HBK line of Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Kessel.  Kessel’s 2016-17 surface stats are a huge improvement over last year (21 goals, 35 assists for 56 points in 61 games), but his underlying metrics say it’s not as good as last year.  All three of the HBK line have had significant drops in their Corsi For % metrics this year, with Kessel’s drop the greatest from 53.7% to 47.9%.  Bonino (51.3% to 47.0%) and Hagelin (55.9% to 53.5%) have had off years, too, which has reflected in the general perception that Bonino and Hagelin are not as good this year.

But Kessel has produced points at a level not seen since Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons and crew starting their campaign to run him out of Toronto.  With a slight push, Kessel could reach the point-per-game plateau that he’s only reached twice in career (2011-12, 2012-13 seasons in Toronto).  So how is he doing it?

The first place to look is the power play.  Kessel has 8 goals and 18 assists on the power play.  Those 26 points account for 46.4% of his point production this year.  To put that in perspective, Crosby’s has 28.4% of his points on the power play and Malkin has 30.6% of his with the man advantage.  It’s not as if Kessel’s power play ice time has increased dramatically, either.  As per Puckalytics, Kessel is averaging around 3.5 min/game this year, up from 3.2 min/game last year, for a negligible increase.

In essence, Kessel has morphed this season into what was envisioned when he was traded here in July 2015 — a sniper, especially on the power play, that played defense as a secondary concern.  His Corsi numbers suggest that he doesn’t carry the play effectively, but does it ultimately matter?  He’s running lucky on the power play with a fairly high shot percentage of 15.0%.  If he can bottle some of this for the upcoming playoff run that would be fantastic.

Next year may see some changes to Kessel’s role on the team.  With Nick Bonino as a unrestricted free agent and Carl Hagelin a potential trade candidate, the HBK line will probably be no more.  Kessel is most likely going to be the right wing for either Crosby or Malkin, presumably Malkin, as the Pens will distill their offensive talent down to two main lines.  Hopefully, the delightfully odd Phil Kessel will adapt to that change and flourish anew.

About Kevin Creagh (274 Articles)
Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.