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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Penguins' Phil Kessel is The Anti-Player

| Saturday, May 12, 2018, 5:27 p.m.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby makes a save on the Penguins' Phil Kessel in the first period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby makes a save on the Penguins' Phil Kessel in the first period during Game 6 on Monday, May 7, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said Phil Kessel's injuries impaired his performance in the playoffs.

Coach Mike Sullivan said Kessel's maladies were "nothing significant," thus putting heat on Kessel for his sub-par play.

Kessel didn't break the tie, as he declined to speak to the media.

We don't know what Kessel's thinking.

That's likely often the case for Rutherford and Sullivan, too.

Kessel is a valuable asset.

Since joining the Penguins in 2015, Kessel has 221 points in 246 regular-season games. He has 54 points in 62 playoff games. He hasn't missed a game. He's got his name on the Stanley Cup twice. His cap hit of $6.8 million makes Kessel a bargain. Assistant coach Rick Tocchet went to Arizona after the 2016-17 season, but losing the "Kessel whisperer" proved no problem.

Most NHL coaches would like to have Kessel. To reap the rewards.

But every NHL coach would be frustrated by coaching Kessel.

By today's standard, Kessel is the anti-player.

Kessel isn't at all physical: He had just 10 hits in 82 regular-season games. That ranked Kessel last on the Penguins among regulars.

Kessel doesn't block shots: He had just 17 blocks during the regular season, placing him last on the team among regulars. Dominik Simon isn't known for being rugged, but he had one more block in 49 fewer games.

Kessel also ranked last on the Penguins in both categories during the playoffs: One hit and two blocks in 12 games.

Are those stats an indictment of Kessel? No. Not when he had a career-high 92 points on the regular season.

But in today's hockey, everybody checks. (Jake Guentzel is smaller than his listed 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but he was second on the Penguins with 142 hits.)

Everybody blocks shots. (Sidney Crosby had 36 blocks, Evgeni Malkin 32.)

Nearly every NHL player displays a degree of grit — except Kessel.

Kessel's skating lets him pitch in defensively. He chases back hard.

But he's not a great practice player, especially on systematic drills. There are certain things Kessel finds unimportant.

Kessel would drive any coach nuts. That might be more of an indictment of coaching rigidity that it is Kessel. But it's fact.

Kessel likely plays through injuries that he shouldn't for the sake of his regular-season consecutive-games streak, which now stands at 692. Sullivan could end that if he feels it's necessary, but Kessel would get the boo-boo face and, perhaps, play accordingly. (That might be better than playing hurt.)

Kessel's contract runs through 2022. He would be difficult to trade because of all the reasons mentioned. Toronto agreed to pay him $1.2 million annually through 2022 just to be rid of him.

But the Penguins may soon be at a crossroads with Kessel. They have a youngster who is also an anti-player: Daniel Sprong.

Sprong, 21, has many of Kessel's strengths and weaknesses. No coach will be elated by working with Sprong. (Sullivan isn't.) Sprong and Kessel are both right wings. Sprong is a restricted free agent but won't break the bank.

Like Kessel, Sprong can score. That's a useful skill in a league where no player netted 50 goals this season and only three got 100 points or more.

But if Kessel and Sprong each play regular shifts on the top three lines of the same team, will their shortcomings add up?

That's a question Rutherford must be asking. If, as Rutherford promised, Sprong is a regular with next year's Penguins, the GM will gauge the answer in the first half of that campaign, then act accordingly.

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

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