PITTSBURGH – Nice guy, tries hard, loves the game, and couldn’t care less about going head-to-head with his former team.
Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
As such, he has no time for your revenge narratives. He’s busy cruising around shark-like on hockey’s most dangerous power-play unit, mounding up points as he threatens to capture an Art Ross Trophy he doesn’t want, and dousing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ threepeat bid in character, seeing-eye passes and the occasional one-liner.
So, when Kessel was asked by a reporter Friday if an extra layer of motivation or nervousness would be slathered over Saturday night’s showdown versus his old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, he just shrugged.
“I don’t really care anymore, y’know,” Kessel replied. “This is the third year, and we won twice, so it’s in the past.”
Presently, Kessel has already banked his 10th consecutive 20-goal season; his 42 assists put him on target to crush his career high in helpers; and he’s tied for fourth overall in NHL scoring. Kessel is quietly in the throes of what’s shaping up to be his best season in a career full of great ones.
Not bad for a third-liner who can’t land an invite to the NHL All-Star Game even when the world’s best player goes to bat for him.
Perhaps most impressive is that, in a game of streaks, Kessel has been the model of consistency. Once Andrew Cogliano got suspended, Kessel jumped to third among active ironmen, 663 games and running. This year, Kessel has never gone longer than two consecutive outings without registering a point.
His explanation for the dependability?
“I don’t know. Gettin’ lucky,” Kessel said. “I do the same stuff. I go to the same spots. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The competitor in him must want to place an Art Ross Trophy on the mantle, right?
“I’ve got two Cups, y’know?” Kessel said. “It doesn’t really matter none.”
Sidney Crosby — “the best player in the world,” as reaffirmed by Auston Matthews Friday — describes Kessel as “laid-back,” which sounds like an understatement.
Kessel’s most recent Upper Deck hockey card features the delicious image of him posing with a Stanley Cup full of hot dogs. Photos and video clips of Casual Phil, semi-regularly fired off by the Penguins social media channels or his teammates, are viral gold.
— Evgeni Malkin (@emalkin71geno) February 1, 2018
“I think people see the other side of him now with social media and things like that,” Crosby told reporters. “You get a little bit of a sneak peek. He’s pretty loose around the rink. He’s a great guy to have in the room and you need different personalities, and he certainly provides that.”
Goofy? Sure. A hazard to the Penguins’ dressing-room culture? Hardly.
The leadership group in Pittsburgh is too solid, and Kessel only needs to create offence and make his centreman — currently Riley Sheahan, although GM Jim Rutherford is working on that — look good.
Kessel maintains friendships with several guys from his Toronto days. He invited Dion Phaneuf to his first Cup party, and the long-time pals met for dinner in Pittsburgh shortly after Phaneuf’s trade to L.A. this week. Former linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak stay in touch and are happy to sing his praises.
“He’s a good friend of mine. We had some good times on the ice in Toronto and obviously I’m happy to see him doing well here,” van Riemsdyk said. “He’s a good passer. He makes space for himself just by making the right plays and putting the other team in a vulnerable position.”
Breaking news: Kessel doesn’t exactly miss the media spotlight of the centre of the hockey universe. He has the same number of points as Crosby and Evegni Malkin (66) but none of the pressure or brand-carrying responsibilities.
“It’s nice. I don’t have to talk every day to you [media] guys. I can kinda do my thing, and I like that,” Kessel said. “I just play.”
Play and watch women’s Olympic hockey, as Kessel is closely following sister Amanda’s Team USA games in PyeongChang.
“That’s what I care most about,” Kessel said. “I’m way more nervous for that than me playing. I’m hoping they can win.”
“We’ve got some trolls here ahead of the Canada-US women’s hockey game. #Pyeonchang2018”
The genuine smile on Mike Sullivan’s face when the subject of Phil Kessel the Personality arises is enough to make you dismiss the trade rumours that circulated around the winger in July.
Maybe the whispered tales that Kessel was a special case, one who required former assistant Rick Tocchet to act as a buffer between him and his head coach, were overblown.
Or maybe that narrative is old and irrelevant now, too.
“I’ve got to know him a lot better as the years have gone on here and we’ve worked together, and I’ve really grown to admire and appreciate his personality. He’s a fun guy,” says Sullivan, and you believe him.
“I don’t think he takes anything too seriously — most importantly himself — and I think his teammates really enjoy having him around. He definitely keeps it light. He’s never been a guy that when the stakes get high, it affects his personality.”
The coach is on a roll, trying hard to paint an accurate picture of a misunderstood athlete.
“If you observed Phil, you wouldn’t know if we were in Game 1 of the season or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final,” Sullivan goes on.
“Teams that are good, championship teams, there’s personality on their team. He brings one of those personalities. He’s unique in a lot of ways, but he’s a terrific player and a really good person.
“He’s not a guy to get uptight. He just plays.”