PITTSBURGH — Too often during Phil Kessel‘s incredibly productive NHL career, the focus has veered to what he doesn’t do, rather than what he does.
In Pittsburgh, the flashy winger has found an employer willing to take a different approach.
The most important message Kessel received from Pittsburgh Penguins management in the wake of the July 1 trade that brought him here from the Toronto Maple Leafs was to have fun. He doesn’t need to be the centre of attention or the one setting an example. On a team with aging forwards, he simply needs to put the puck in the net.
It’s an intriguing situation for a player who scored 185 times over six seasons with the Maple Leafs, but was still deemed to be at the rotten core of an underachieving roster. He was the only notable member of the team jettisoned following a year where it won just nine of the last 42 games.
Yet even with recalibrated expectations, and having been relieved of the media scrutiny that dogged him in Toronto, one fundamental aspect of Kessel’s job remains unchanged.
“There’s always pressure no matter where you go,” he said Thursday. “You’ve got to play your game and hopefully things work.”
This is an experiment in its earliest phase: Kessel skating on the right side of Sidney Crosby‘s line with Chris Kunitz. There hasn’t been instant magic — far from it — but teammates suggest Kessel has been the most dangerous player during a tepid four-game start for the Penguins, who host the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
He’s scored one goal and generated 16 shots, which would translate to a 35-goal pace if he averaged the 10.8 per cent shooting percentage he’s maintained during his NHL career.
Of course, it’s still very early and goal-scoring tends to be subject to streaks.
What has become clear is Pittsburgh will need him to produce. The team only has five goals total on the season and picked up its first win by blanking the Ottawa Senators 2-0 on Thursday night.
Crosby has been held without a point over four games for just the third time in his career. Kunitz hasn’t hit the scoresheet either. Evgeni Malkin‘s goal against the Senators was his first in 19 games dating back to last year.
While the lack of production isn’t eliciting panic — “I think it’s a matter of time for good scorers like that,” said coach Mike Johnston. “It’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s anything they need to press” — each of those players has likely already experienced his best NHL season.
Based on historical trends, the same goes for Kessel at age 28.
The highest-paid players on a capped-strapped team may not be over the hill just yet, but they’re certainly trending in the wrong direction. It’s arguably the biggest impediment to Kessel finding the on-ice happiness the Penguins envisioned when they traded Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling and a conditional first-round draft pick for him.
Inside the dressing room, Kessel is already as popular as he was among his teammates in Toronto.
“He’s pretty funny,” said Crosby. “You know what, he’s just comfortable. He seems like he’s been here a lot longer than a month or whatever.”
“We have fun with him — that’s one part I’m a little bit surprised [about],” said David Perron, who met Kessel for the first time at training camp and now occupies the locker stall beside him.
“You never know what kind of guy you’re going to get. He’s been awesome, he’s been pretty funny. Guys keep him loose.”
These are the early days of what should be a long marriage. Kessel is under contract through 2020-21 and carries a cap hit of $6.8-million (the Leafs are covering the other $1.2-million) to go with a limited no-trade clause.
Often a change of scenery has a positive impact on a player, especially one coming from a team that missed the playoffs five of the last six years and is being promised more freedom.
“It’s a tough market in Toronto,” said Perron. “I think he was loving it there, but maybe it was time to move on. I don’t know all that happened there. We’re really happy to have him.”
Kessel remains intensely guarded. It’s difficult to get him to pull back the curtain even when it comes to relatively benign topics, such as what it’s been like adjusting to life in a smaller provincial city after years of downtown living in Toronto.
Absent specifics, the predominant feeling around the Penguins is that he’s content in his new home.
“It’s been good,” said Kessel. “The guys are great here, it’s a great town — great sports city — and I love it so far.”