Here’s a quick and easy way to make Sportsnet’s hockey pundits look foolish: Flip back to our 2015-16 season predictions, specifically the guesstimates made under the subhead “Kessel Goal Total.”
On average, the hockey minds here had Phil Kessel putting up 41 goals in his first season as a Pittsburgh Penguin. Scott Morrison was optimistic at 51. Leah Hextall will win the pool at 30, but even she aimed too high, falling — as we all did — into the trap of thinking the five-time 30-goal sniper would easily return to form by upgrading his setup man from Tyler Bozak to Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin.
“What is a goal scorer supposed to have at this point? Is he supposed to have 30 goals? And if he doesn’t have 30 goals, does it mean he’s not playing well?” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, the man who traded for Kessel, said Monday on Hockey Central at Noon.
“Overall, he’s bought in to what the coach is trying to do and bought in to being a team guy. I’m sure he’d like to see production on the goal side.”
Pittsburgh's six-game winning streak has propelled Rutherford's club ahead of both New York franchises. The surge has also made Malkin's injury easier to deal with and smoothed over Kessel's rough patch on the score sheet.
The 28-year-old right wing, as with all shooters, turns hot and cold. He has just one goal in his last nine games, three in the last month, and 21 on the season. Team USA's most dangerous offensive weapon in the last best-on-best tournament (Sochi 2014) hasn't been named yet to his country's roster for the 2016 World Cup. And he's tied for 54th in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, knotted with the likes of Zack Smith and Charlie Coyle.
All of this leaves Kessel's defenders to point to other aspects of his game that are working.
“My expectation is he would get 30 goals this year," Rutherford said. "He's been doing fine. His game in Philadelphia was probably his best game of the year as an all-around game. He was forechecking and doing things I really haven't seen in his career."
Teammate Patric Hornqvist said Kessel was the Penguins' best player in Saturday's rivalry match. Not that he's killing penalties or anything, but Kessel, an atrocious minus-34 last season, is a plus player for the first time since he left Boston.
"He loved Toronto," Rutherford said. "I know it was hard sometimes for him there, but at the same time he loved it there and didn't really want to leave. I really feel he still deals with that emotion."
Rutherford gave up centre Nick Spaling, prospect Kasperi Kapanen, defenceman Scott Harrington, plus first- and third-round draft picks in July's Kessel deal. Still, the GM insists he's not disappointed by Kessel's season. His commitment to Mike Sullivan's game plan outweighs the underwhelming numbers.
“I’m fine with the way Phil’s played," Rutherford said. "We know at any time he can change the game. When he’s out there, the team has to watch him real close. Now he's shooting the puck more, and pucks are going to go in.”
Secrets to the Penguins' March according to GM Jim Rutherford
Coaching change: "Mike Sullivan really clicked with this group of guys in how he likes to play the game and how the guys like to play the game... The way the power play was set up was one thing that changed."
A resurgent Sidney Crosby: "He started to produce a lot more in the second half. Of course, that's how everybody judges him, based on his production, but I really feel he's played hard all year," Rutherford says of the NHL's first star of the week. "He was setting guys up; we weren't converting.
"Sid is so determined to do well. While all this was going on, you can be sure he was trying to figure out different ways [to boost his offence]."
Balanced offence: "[Opposing] teams can't just concentrate on one line. We have a much better transition game from the back end, which really helps a guy like Sid because he likes to go through the neutral zone at top speed and get the puck, and he wasn’t getting it earlier in the year."
Upped tempo: "We've gone from a slow team to a fast team. We added Trevor Daley, we added Carl Hagelin. We brought some young guys up from the minors who can really skate: [Bryan] Rust and [Scott] Wilson and [Tom] Kuhnhackl and [Conor] Sheary."
Reliable goaltending: “We’re right where we want to be [in net]. We made a decision early to put [coveted prospect Matt] Murray in the minors so he could play a lot of games and not sit a long times behind Fleury. We know what Fleury's done for us. He really carried the team earlier in the year, and in these big games he's come up big for us at the right time in the game.”
Toughness: "We have a team right now that's not going to go out and out-muscle or beat teams up, but we have a group of guys who are really tough."