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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: If Phil Kessel would talk, we could put questions to rest

| Friday, May 11, 2018, 6:18 a.m.
Phil Kessel of the Penguins has the puck stolen by T.J. Oshie of the Capitals during the third period in Game 5 in the second round of the playoffs Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Washington.
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Phil Kessel of the Penguins has the puck stolen by T.J. Oshie of the Capitals during the third period in Game 5 in the second round of the playoffs Saturday, May 5, 2018, in Washington.

A great deal of Pittsburgh sports media was focused on one topic Thursday: Should Phil Kessel have answered questions on locker clean-out day?

He didn't. Much like during the 2018 playoff games themselves, Kessel was nowhere to be found.

I was there for breakup day. For 24 hours, I hardly gave Kessel's absence a second thought. I didn't care until seemingly everyone else in my line of work made me care with their various stances on the topic.

The main reason I didn't care is that Phil Kessel is intentionally an awful interview and probably wouldn't have said anything noteworthy anyway. The guy has had one memorable interview moment in his whole career, and it was an accident.

Oh, it's funny because there was a minor misunderstanding of the context of the question! Hilarious! Comedy gold.

To be clear, Kessel is an awful interview because Kessel WANTS to be an awful interview. The worse he is, the less the media want to talk to him. The less the media want to talk to him, the less he has to explain a scoring slump or — and I'm just spitballing here — a horrible turnover at the blueline in Game 5 in Washington.

That strategy has worked. Like most hockey fans in Pittsburgh, I've been curious about his health dating to when his play tailed off at the end of the regular season. But he's never directly answered questions in that regard. This would be our last chance to get answers as media members to pass along to the fans.

Hold that last thought, I'll get back to it.

But let's answer the main question first: Should Phil Kessel have talked Wednesday?

The answer is "yes." He should have. Mainly because the person who would've benefitted the most is — you guessed it — Phil Kessel. If he talks for two minutes, 24 hours of debate evaporates.

This town loves to give Kessel a break. Not initially. But, conveniently, when he started playing well toward the end of 2016 regular season. It's worn like a badge of honor around here that the fans and media "just let Phil be Phil" more readily than was the case in Boston and Toronto. So as a result, he's enjoyed more success and we should get some of the credit, right?

Neat how that works.

Kessel is virtually protected here. In other stops, he was perceived as brooding and standoffish. In Pittsburgh, he's been cast as a quirky, unique, comic relief cartoon character.

Too much in my opinion. But, whatever. It works. I've never cared about Kessel's breath, his affinity for hot dogs or his goofy demeanor. I do, however, love the way he shoots the puck, his skating and his deft passing.

So when those elements of his game disappeared, I'd be willing to cut the guy a break if he was playing hurt. I'm sure the fans would, too. Look at how much the criticism of Derick Brassard and Dominic Simon has dissipated since we found out how badly injured they were.

Mike Sullivan and Jim Rutherford confirmed Kessel was injured in some way, but certainly not the degree that they used it as an explanation for Brassard's ineffective play. Which leads to the questions: What was the injury and, really, how bad was it?

It would've been nice to get an answer from the horse's mouth. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances as to why Kessel didn't speak. And, if so, it may behoove everyone if the team makes that known.

Or maybe Kessel didn't want to answer those questions because one of them would've been: "Hey, Phil, did you play through injury too much late in the regular season in hopes of continuing that consecutive-game streak?"

That answer is probably "yes," and maybe Kessel didn't want to come up with a phony response that sounded like "no."

The debate went down many avenues in the Pittsburgh sports media scene. Here's one such exchange that generally summed it up.

Followed by….

And when I entered the fray, I was informed that "the fans don't care about this stuff."

Well, we must talk to different fans. Because I can't tell you how many people asked me, "What's wrong with Kessel? Is it a wrist, his ribs, his shoulder? I think it's a core-muscle thing!"

As someone who is supposedly paid to disseminate those answers, it's tough to do so when the team doesn't reveal the injury and the player doesn't answer.

Of course, he doesn't have to. But silence augments that kind of speculation.

As far as the "don't hide behind the fans" take? Please. If it weren't for fan interest, we wouldn't have jobs. And if it weren't for cultivating that fan interest, the NHL wouldn't open the locker room to reporters in the first place.

If there wasn't a need for it, why does a guy like Sidney Crosby make himself available every day, sometimes twice a day? Because he really enjoys Q&A's with someone like ... well, me? Probably not.

None of this is to mention the fact that Kris Letang, Matt Murray, Simon and Olli Maatta all spoke before leaving. They've all been kicked around like Kessel has since the Washington series ended.

Why did they answer questions? Because if their teammates were going to go through it, they were going to go through it. That's why. Because it's what you do.

So, for the "Kessel Defense Foundation" out there, if you prefer, we'll forget searching for the explanation of injury. We'll just stick with: "He flat out stunk in the playoffs." No excuses. He was just terrible.

Does that somehow come off better — and more accurate — than an informed explanation of how his health adversely impacted his play?

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