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Penguins

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says relationship with Phil Kessel is strong

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, June 22, 2018, 10:57 p.m.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel is the focal point of trade rumors this weekend.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel is the focal point of trade rumors this weekend.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks with Phil Kessel during practice Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks with Phil Kessel during practice Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Mike Sullivan said Friday night his relationship with star winger Phil Kessel isn't broken beyond repair.

It isn't even broken at all, the coach said.

“My relationship with Phil has been the same for three seasons,” Sullivan told reporters at the NHL draft in Dallas. “It hasn't changed. It's evolved because we've been through different experiences both as a group and as individuals, but my relationship with Phil is the same as it's always been. It's one of respect, of mutual respect and that's how I see it.

“I like Phil a lot, as a person and a hockey player. He's been a big part of the Pittsburgh Penguins' success over the last three seasons. He's coming off a 92-point season, put us in a great position to compete again for a Stanley Cup. He was a huge part of the two Stanley Cups that we won, and myself and our coaching staff has nothing but respect for the type of player and the person that he is.”

Shortly after the Penguins were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in six games in the second round of the playoffs, Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford gave slightly different interpretations of the injuries Kessel was dealing with in the postseason.

He recorded one goal and eight assists in 12 playoff games, often looking like he was playing at less than 100 percent.

Rutherford said some long-standing injuries caught up with Kessel. Sullivan said the 30-year-old winger's injuries were “nothing significant.” Sullivan's less-charitable description raised some eyebrows.

Soon, reports emerged that the relationship between Sullivan and Kessel was strained, perhaps to the point that the Penguins would have to consider trading the 30-year-old right wing. Those reports also indicated Kessel was unhappy with Sullivan for playing him with centers other than Evgeni Malkin.

“Sometimes when we say things, you guys draw conclusions or extrapolate things that we have no intention of relaying to you guys. I think that's just the nature of the business,” Sullivan said. “I think, in this particular instance … no one ever asked either myself or Phil. The reality is our relationship is as good as it's ever been. I think there's a mutual respect there.

“Have we had our differences at times over the course of each season that we've been together? Of course we have, but that's the player-coach relationship that goes on on every team. As I say to Phil and all our players, my commitment to them is to find common ground to help put them all in positions to be successful. I know, and I can assure you guys, that both Phil and myself have the same motivation in mind, and that's trying to help the Pittsburgh Penguins win and be successful.”

Sullivan said he found it difficult to explain Kessel's struggles in the playoffs.

“But the reality is I know Phil's heart was in the right place, and his effort was in the right place,” Sullivan said. “Every guy on our team is trying to help us win.”

Sullivan's comments were the most newsworthy moment of the night for the Penguins, who did not have a first-round draft pick because of last season's trade for Derick Brassard. They will pick in the second round, 53rd overall, Saturday afternoon.

While the Penguins were one of several teams linked in national media reports to trade talks involving Carolina Hurricanes scorer Jeff Skinner earlier in the day, there was little movement leaguewide Friday night. The only deal involving roster players was consummated when Washington sent goalie Philipp Grubauer and former Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to Colorado for a second-round pick.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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