'Motivated' iron man Kessel relishes opportunity with competitive Golden Knights

Arizona Coyotes' Phil Kessel skates during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. It is Kessel's first visit to Pittsburgh since being traded last off-season to the Coyotes. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

As Phil Kessel addressed media for the first time since signing a one-year, $1.5-million contract with the Vegas Golden Knights, it was clear what drew him to Sin City: winning.

After a "tough" three-year stint with the Arizona Coyotes, Kessel is excited for the chance to join a team that is fully committed to winning.

"I'm excited," said Kessel from the front seat of his car via Zoom on Thursday. "Obviously it's a great organization and a great team. A winning place. When you get a chance to play on a good team that wants to win, you're always looking forward to it."

The Golden Knights finished the 2021-22 season just out of reach of a playoff spot. With a 43-31-8 record, good for 94 total points, Vegas was three points shy of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. In comparison, the Coyotes finished with 57 points and a 25-50-7 record.

Though the 34-year-old had a few options in front of him when making his decision in free agency, he could tell the Golden Knights were the best match.

"There were a couple choices, but I thought Vegas was a great fit," said Kessel. "(The Golden Knights) have great players, great organization, they want to win, they want to compete, the older you get, you realize that's what you want. You want to always be competitive, you want to have a chance to win and show the player you are and play with great players."

In stark contrast to his new club, Kessel's former team was not as enthusiastic about dominating the scoreboard and the win column, according to the two-time Stanley Cup champion.

"It's tough when you're in a spot, you think you're coming somewhere to win and that's not the direction they choose to be in," said Kessel. "Whenever you play on a team like that, that doesn't necessarily want to win, they want to get younger, it becomes very difficult."

From a goal scoring perspective, Kessel had a down year in terms of production, netting a career-low eight goals in 82 appearances during the 2021-22 season.

The 16-year pro will use his new team's mindset and direction as fuel for his individual performance, which will help the group in the big picture.

"I don't think that's the case and I'm very motivated to come in here and help this team and try to contend," said Kessel. "I'm very motivated and think I will have a great year."

Though the exact details of his role with the Golden Knights is unclear, Kessel has no doubt it will be an impactful one.

"I haven't talked to (head coach Bruce Cassidy) yet, but I expect to have a big role here," said Kessel. "There are a lot of great players there and I just want to fit in and obviously help as much as I can. Like I said, I think I have a lot to prove ... and I don't think I've changed much as a player than I was in Pittsburgh, so I expect to have a good year and help this team win."

Kessel also confirmed that he will not be wearing No. 81, the number he has donned his entire career, for his new squad.

With winning as the clear-cut top priority for the invigorated Kessel, only time will tell if he will get his wish.

NHL Scout Jason Bukala, on what Phil Kessel will bring to Vegas: "A one-year deal, on the surface it seems to be worth the risk. Once upon a time Kessel was an almost guarantee to score 25-plus goals when in a Leafs and Penguins uniform. When I consider some of his more productive offensive seasons also came with some questionable defensive stats (minus-34 in 2014-15 with Toronto for example) his all-round impact in Arizona the past three years hasn't been terrible given the state of the Coyotes. His goal scoring dropped off dramatically in 2021-22, but he found a way to contribute 44 assists. His fitness has never been great. He's lost some speed off the rush. His shots on goal per game has dropped to a career low 2.13, but he will be supported more in Vegas and can still produce on the power play. It's nearing the end for Kessel but he might catch lightning in a bottle next season when deployed in the scenarios that maximize his current potential."

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