Penguins’ Sullivan disputes reports about rift with Phil Kessel

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie joins The Jeff Blair Show to discuss the chances of the Penguins trading Phil Kessel, and whether his name was involved in the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes one-for-one deal made over the weekend.

After weeks of reports detailing an alleged rift between Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins bench boss set the record straight about what he believes has been an unfair characterization of his relationship with the star winger.

Much has been made of the issues potentially concerning the pair since The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reported in May that Kessel was unhappy with his role on the team — specifically that Kessel felt he wasn’t given enough ice-time alongside Evgeni Malkin.

On Tuesday, Yohe added more fuel to the fire, reporting that Kessel isn’t opposed to getting traded to another club, and named the Arizona Coyotes as a particularly desirable destination.

Sullivan doesn’t believe those reports have been accurate.

“A lot of what’s been written, in my estimation, from my standpoint, has been false,” he told Mackey on Friday. “I know where my relationship is with Phil, and I certainly have a comfort level with it. I think Phil does, too.”

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The veteran coach — who led the Penguins to two straight Stanley Cups during his first two years behind the Penguins bench, with Kessel in tow — didn’t dispute that he and his star winger have disagreed from time to time, but said that such disagreements aren’t uncommon.

“Have we had ups and downs through the course of three years or differences of opinions in certain situations? Of course,” Sullivan said. “I think you could say that coach-to-player in a lot of situations. My commitment to our players is always to try and find common ground. Phil’s no different.”

Sullivan also specifically addressed the contention that Kessel was unhappy with the amount of time he spent apart from Malkin.

“That’s not true. Where did that come from? Who said that?” Sullivan said. “Phil played a lot with Geno. Phil played most of the Philadelphia series with Geno. … We think our team is at its best and has a competitive advantage when we create balance throughout our lineup. Sometimes that means we spread our stars. But we don’t always spread our stars. … It’s not like [Phil and Geno] don’t get the opportunity to play together.”


Stressing his admiration for the veteran sniper, who posted a career-best 92-point effort in 2017-18 and played an integral role in Pittsburgh’s two Cup runs, Sullivan said differences of opinion like the ones that have been had in the Penguins dressing room are simply part of the process.

“The way I look at it, coaches go through trials and tribulations with their team and their players. It’s hard to win in this league, and it’s not always warm and fuzzy,” Sullivan told Mackey. “It’s a game that’s not for the faint of heart, but when you get on the other side of conflict, your relationships get stronger.

“I feel like that’s what’s happened with our coaching staff and this Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Phil’s part of that group.”

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