Phil Kessel‘s World Cup exclusion caught his general manager off guard.
The United States announced their full roster on Friday, leaving the talented sniper off their forward corps in favour of more defensive-minded players like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, along with head coach Mike Sullivan, spoke with the media on Sunday where Rutherford was asked to comment on Kessel’s apparent snub.
“I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to give you a long answer or a short one,” said Rutherford after a long pause. “I’m surprised he’s left off Team USA.”
Kessel was the leading scorer for the U.S. at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and has been one of the game’s premier wingers for much of his career, but his talents weren’t enough for an American team chosen by Los Angeles Kings GM Doug Armstrong.
The John Tortorella-coached team appears to be built to grind down the opposition.
Coach Sullivan thinks Kessel isn’t the one-dimensional player he’s often made out to be.
“I think Phil deserves all the credit for how his game has evolved over the course of this season,” said Sullivan. “He has made a commitment level to himself and to this team that all of us associated with this team respect and admire.
“I know that we would not be playing in the Stanley Cup Final without his contribution.”
The Penguins have been rolling in these playoffs, with Kessel finding his niche playing alongside Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. Kessel has seemingly thrived without the pressure of being the marquee player on a team, as he was with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think Phil’s enjoying this team, I think he’s enjoying his teammates and the role that he’s come to evolve into as part of this group,” said Sullivan. “But he certainly deserves all the credit for how hard he’s played (and) the commitment level that he has given to this team.”
The 28-year-old leads Pittsburgh in scoring this post-season, with 18 points in 18 games, and will now go up against a San Jose Sharks team whose assistant coach, Steve Spott, infamously told a story at a coaching clinic about Kessel’s refusal to play a certain breakout style back when Spott was a part of Toronto’s coaching staff.
Sullivan makes it clear he hasn’t had any similar issues.
“We’ve asked him to and challenged him to improve aspects of his game away from the puck, along the boards, areas like that and he’s embraced that and been receptive to that,” he said. “I know this coaching staff is very appreciative of that.”