The case for why Phil Kessel has been the Penguins’ MVP

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel scores on Buffalo Sabres goalie Chad Johnson for yet another goal from, "his spot".

The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly haven’t been a team short on intrigue this season. Coming into the year as the betting favourite to defend their title in pursuit of a three-peat, the results have been a mixed bag so far.

What’s made them a tricky bunch to evaluate this season are the unique extenuating circumstances. To start the campaign, they looked every bit like a team that had just played a ton of hockey games deep into each of the past two summers. Most of their early struggles were shrugged off on account of that – including a trio of October thrashings at the hands of the Blackhawks, Lightning, and Jets, in which they lost by a combined 24-3 margin.

It was easy for us to overlook some of the early-season red flags because of their combination of recent success and all the star talent on the roster. We expected this team to eventually flip the switch when the games began to matter more.

They’ve slowly started to reward that faith and have now won eight of their past 10 games. That’s allowed them to vault into a playoff spot for the time being, though their grip on it is still tenuous with six teams behind them all within five points.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

There’s sure to be plenty of jockeying for position in the crowded Metropolitan Division in the days and weeks to come, but the fact Pittsburgh is still in the discussion is remarkable, considering all the difficulties they’ve endured in what we typically believe to be the most important game state.

At five-on-five this season, the Penguins have been trapped inside their own personal house of horrors. They’ve had the fifth-most anemic offence and no team has a lower shooting percentage.

On the other end of the ice, they’ve been the fifth-most porous defence, largely due to the fact that no team has a lower save percentage than Pittsburgh’s .908.

Put those two together, and the end result is a team that’s given up 27 more goals against at five-on-five than it has scored. As a frame of reference, only the Arizona Coyotes (-38) and Buffalo Sabres (-31) have been worse, and they’re unequivocally the two worst teams in the league.

So with that in mind, how exactly have the Penguins managed to stay afloat and survive despite taking on so much water?

Part of the answer is their power play which, unlike their aforementioned performance at even strength, has been running red hot all year. Not only have they scored more than anyone else on the power play, but it actually stacks right up there with the best units we’ve seen dating back to 2006:

Team Season Power Play Goals Per Hour
WSH 2012-2013 10.29
WSH 2008-2009 10.10
PIT 2017-2018 9.88
DET 2008-2009 9.87
WSH 2009-2010 9.75
WPG 2017-2018 9.55
WSH 2014-2015 9.51
SJS 2008-2009 9.43
VAN 2010-2011 9.30
SJS 2017-2018 9.26
WSH 2013-2014 9.26
BOS 2008-2009 9.03

When the best players the NHL has to offer convened in Tampa Bay last weekend for the league’s annual all-star festivities, there was one name that was most conspicuously missing from the bunch.

That was Phil Kessel, who somehow wasn’t one of the three members of the Penguins in attendance, despite there being a well-founded argument that he’s been their most important (if not outright best) player this season.

On the surface, that might sound like an outlandish claim, given that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still living, breathing, and playing hockey.

But there’s actually a fairly reasonable case to be made for it through the first 50-plus games. Here’s the thinking behind it: the only reason the Penguins are still alive in the playoff picture is because of their power play, and their most effective weapon in that particular facet of the game has been Kessel.

Kessel is currently third in league scoring behind only Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon, on pace for 33 goals and 93 points over the course of a full season. Of his 59 points thus far, more than half have come on the power play. To put that kind of split into perspective, here are the players who have had the highest chunk of their production come on the man advantage (minimum of 10 points on the year):

Player Total Points Power Play Points % PP Production
Brad Hunt 12 8 66.67
Samuel Girardi 13 8 61.54
Kyle Palmieri 18 11 61.11
Dustin Byfuglien 20 12 60.00
Justin Faulk 17 10 58.82
Tyler Myers 26 15 57.69
Will Butcher 29 16 55.17
Shayne Gostisbehere 33 18 54.55
Phil Kessel 59 32 54.24
Kevin Shattenkirk 23 12 52.17
Kyle Turris 30 15 50.00
Kris Letang 28 14 50.00
Mike Green 26 13 50.00
Jeff Petry 22 11 50.00
TJ Brodie 20 10 50.00

It’s interesting to note that Kyle Palmieri and Kyle Turris are the only other forwards to appear on the list. It’s generally difficult for defencemen to rack up counting stats in bunches at five-on-five because of the typical game flow and how points are distributed.

If Kessel can keep this up, he is trending towards some awfully illustrious company all-time. He’s currently on pace for 52 power play points, which is rather insane considering that the 50-point plateau has only been reached 11 times over the past two decades. Taking it one step further, seven of those 11 individual performances conveniently came in the artificially inflated year following the 2004-05 lockout, when the league went crazy and gave out penalties for looking at people the wrong way.

Player Season Power Play Points
Sidney Crosby 2006-2007 61
Ilya Kovalchuk 2005-2006 56
Markus Naslund 2002-2003 54
Teemu Selanne 1998-1999 54
Joe Thornton 2006-2007 54
Phil Kessel 2017-2018 52*
Alex Ovechkin 2005-2006 52
Jaromir Jagr 2005-2006 52
Tomas Kaberle 2005-2006 51
Joe Thornton 2005-2006 51
Nicklas Lidstrom 2005-2006 50
Marc Savard 2005-2006 50

A big part of the battle in accumulating points is always going to be about opportunity. Kessel has certainly been blessed with that, having played just over 200 total minutes with the Penguins up a man this season. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the only others to top that mark, and only Ovechkin has had a higher percentage of his total ice time (21.9 per cent of his minutes to Kessel’s 21.5 per cent) come on the power play.

While that’s impossible to dispute, it’s likewise impossible to argue that Kessel hasn’t deserved to gobble up the kind of cushy usage he’s received. Inhabiting the left circle with his lethal snap shot, he’s seemingly been involved in the action whenever the Penguins have struck on the man advantage. At a per-minute clip, only Josh Bailey has produced points more efficiently, and only Blake Wheeler has generated primary power play points more often than Kessel.

At this point, it’ll be pretty difficult for Kessel to ever get the love his play warrants. Part of that is because of his teammates, who are bigger names that are held in higher regard and will always soak up the majority of the attention. Another part of that is because some people can’t seem to take him seriously as a top athlete because of the way he looks, which has led to some of the unfair off-ice criticism he’s drawn throughout his career.

But don’t let any of that fool you. On a team flush with stars, Phil Kessel has shone the brightest this season. The only thing heavy about him these days is the lifting he’s been doing for the Penguins.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.