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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: One-of-a-kind Penguins winger Phil Kessel deserves plaudits

| Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, 7:34 p.m.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel celebrates his goal against theCapitals in the first period Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel celebrates his goal against theCapitals in the first period Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

You don't really coach Phil Kessel.

You negotiate.

“Phil's not a guy that's always going to play the game the way you want him to play,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “That's part of what makes Phil the elite player that he is.

“The conversation I have with Phil all the time is to try to get him to meet me halfway on certain situations. Whether it's his play away from the puck, or his play along the wall or participating on a forecheck.”

When “negotiating” with Kessel, Sullivan probably has bit his tongue enough to occasionally merit stitches.

But the payoff is worth it.

“Phil's the kind of guy who can sleep, or play a pretty vanilla game, for a period and a half,” Sullivan continued. “Then all of a sudden he makes two or three plays that are difference-makers, and we end up scoring goals.”

Today's NHL is built on speed. Kessel has plenty and frequently uses it.

But this era's coaches demand at least a modicum of physicality and shot-blocking. Finish your check. Fill shooting lanes.

Count Kessel out.

Kessel has nine hits in 52 games. That ranks last among Penguin regulars.

Kessel has 13 blocked shots. (He likely couldn't get out of the way of those.) That also ranks last among Penguin regulars.

Kessel plays defense but does it his way. He covers ably when a defenseman is trapped up ice. He skates opposing puck-carriers into oblivion.

Throw in his other quirks — like consistently shooting off the wrong foot while using a stick that bends like spaghetti — and it's evident that Kessel truly is a unique hockey player within the context of today's NHL.

Kessel's style is different. But it's effective.

It's been especially effective in 2017-18. Kessel may be the Penguins' MVP.

Heck, Kessel may be the league's MVP. Going into Saturday's action, he had 23 goals and 39 assists and was just two points off the NHL scoring lead.

But hockey writers vote on who wins the Hart Trophy. They would never give it to Kessel.

Kessel gets gypped with regularity: left off the U.S. team for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Left out of this year's NHL 3-on-3 All-Star tournament despite great stats (including the league lead in 3-on-3 points).

Forgive some paranoia on Kessel's behalf. But Kessel doesn't look the part. He doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Kessel addresses said fools (the media) often enough. When a question moves him, he can be forthright and witty. Ask about his shooting style, or the flex of his sticks: “You don't tell a carpenter what tools to use.”

But after posting two goals and an assist in a 7-4 win over Washington on Friday at PPG Paints Arena, Kessel deftly ignored a question about his run at the scoring title. When asked if he was playing his best hockey ever, Kessel grimaced and said, “I don't know. You guys can decide that.”

Consider it decided. Kessel is playing his best hockey ever.

If Kessel was a problem child at previous stops, it hasn't shown in Pittsburgh. (Although he and Sullivan have definitely had skirmishes, and Kessel famously fired a few expletives Sidney Crosby's way in an incident caught on video. But that happens on every hockey team's bench.)

Kessel has prospered this season despite Rick Tocchet leaving the Penguins staff to become Arizona's coach. Tocchet was known as Kessel's “whisperer” when he was a Penguins assistant, a buffer between Kessel and Sullivan. Kessel respects Tocchet greatly.

But Tocchet is gone, and Kessel is better yet. Tocchet helped, sure, but talent tells.

Tocchet remains a Kessel fan: “Phil is great for the Penguins. He brings personality and delivers under pressure. His perspective on things is refreshing and head-scratching at the same time. Great person.”

Two Stanley Cup rings prove Kessel special. His main priority is doubtless a third. The Penguins may be star-studded but aren't too interested in individual accomplishments. That trickles down from the captain.

Being NHL MVP would be special, too. But Kessel won't get it, even if he's deserving.

So here's hoping Kessel cops the scoring title. Nobody votes on those or on Stanley Cups. A great man once said that.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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