Phil Kessel was drafted in 2006 fifth overall by the Boston Bruins. Back then he was just a young guy playing for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the NCAA. The quick right wing was signed to his Entry Level Deal that year in August. He would continue to play for the Bruins and score at a decent pace for the next three seasons. Then, in September 2009 he was traded for three picks (that would become Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton) to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He went on to play six seasons for the Leafs. While playing for the storied Original Six franchise, he led the team in scoring for almost his entire tenure, played over 400 consecutive games, and topped 30 goals in five straight seasons. Despite only making one playoff appearance, he posted great numbers on a team that was simply lackluster. He laced up for everything from the Olympics to the All-Star Game, yet something wasn’t quite right. He’s got the second highest offensive output of any American-born player over his NHL career and scores goals seemingly at will. Yet Toronto was begging to get rid of him by late 2015.
Trying to figure out what went wrong for Kessel in Toronto is like trying to figure out what came first — the chicken or the egg. The media said terrible things about his eating habits, his conditioning, his devotion to his team. Yet he was no angel, sparring with them on more than one occasion and simply not being the kind of franchise face Toronto wanted to force him into being. It was probably a case of square-peg into round-hole syndrome more than anything but what it led to was quite a mess.
Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins made a summer deal to bring Phil into the fold, giving both parties a chance for something new. In Pittsburgh, Phil Kessel doesn’t have to be “the guy”, he just has to be a guy. He gets to play with some talented players and be a smaller part of a big puzzle. He doesn’t have to be the sole solution.
Tomorrow, it all comes full circle when Kessel takes on the team that traded him away. While Phil wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the Toronto media, he did like Toronto as a town. He seemed genuinely sad to have to leave and that the team didn’t see him as part of their plans going forward anymore.
This isn’t the first time for Phil though. Following his trade to the Leafs from the Bruins, Kessel was in the same division as his former team. This time, that isn’t the case and he’ll see a lot less of his former employer, but it’s pretty obvious Kessel wants to perform well against a team that gave up on him because that’s just human nature.
That year following the trade that moved Kessel above the border didn’t see much Maple Leaf success against the Bruins. This time around, though, he has a little guy named Sidney Crosby on his team and his departure from Toronto was quite a bit more dramatic than the one he made from Boston. Add the fact that Kessel is most likely to let his play do the talking and he’s primed for his big first break-out game in a Penguins uniform.
My personal prediction: Four or five points with two goals.