Tim Benz: What Penguins coach Mike Sullivan didn’t say about Phil Kessel is telling
This is the second of our five posts examining the “money quotes” from Mike Sullivan’s interview on 105.9 the X with Mark Madden this week.
On Thursday, we focused on what the Penguins head coach had to say about Evgeni Malkin. On Friday, we look at his comments about the recently traded Phil Kessel.
Or — maybe more telling — what he didn’t say about Kessel.
A long-held belief by many who watched the Kessel trade go down — both attempts, that is — is that by the end of 2019, Sullivan simply couldn’t connect with his star winger anymore.
He wanted Kessel to anchor a third line as he did with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino. Kessel wanted to play with Malkin.
Sullivan wanted Kessel to be more responsible with the puck and to be more dedicated defensively. Kessel just wanted to play offense his own way.
That was fine for Kessel over the course of his first two years here, as that approach earned him two championships.
All it earned him over the last two years was a spot deeper in Sullivan’s dog house.
It also earned him 82 points last season. So it was awfully hard to pull Kessel from the lineup or lessen his ice time.
But when general manager Jim Rutherford opined about how last year’s team was difficult to coach for Sullivan, how the chemistry wasn’t good enough and some players got satisfied after two recent titles, who else do you think he meant?
With the exception of Mr. Nice Guy Olli Maatta and the retired Matt Cullen, everyone else is still in Black and Gold.
You do the math.
When Sullivan was asked about Kessel’s departure by Madden on Tuesday, what caught my ear wasn’t so much what Sullivan said.
It’s what he didn’t say.
“Phil was a big part of the Stanley Cup championships that he helped us win,” Sullivan said. “But certainly we felt that change needed to be made to the team. And that was part of it.”
Not exactly a Hallmark goodbye there, huh?
No “Phil will be missed, it was a pleasure to coach him.” No “I wish we could’ve figured out a way to keep him.” No perfunctory reference to what a quirky, fun guy Phil was, as so many of his defenders love to point out.
There was also this follow up from Sullivan.
“Phil is still a very good power-play player. He’s very good at distributing the puck off of one of the half walls. He’s a dangerous shooter as well,” Sullivan said.
“Still a good power-play player” is a far cry from “still a good player.”
There’s good reason for that. As last year dragged along, Kessel became a ghost at even strength.
To be fair, the “part B” of Madden’s question was about the power play. So Sullivan could’ve just been making a segue in the conversation. But whether Sullivan made that reference on purpose or subliminally, Kessel appeared to be fading into a power-play specialist last season.
To his credit, Kessel tied Sidney Crosby for the team lead with 12 power-play goals and was tops overall on the club with 36 power-play points.
Plus, Kessel’s overall numbers don’t suggest he was a liability five-on-five until you look at February and March, when he didn’t score at all at even strength.
The longer the regular season went on, the worse Kessel got. He perked up a bit in April and in the playoffs against the Islanders. But that series lasted only four games.
Kessel’s minus-19 doesn’t exactly infer good even-strength play, either, although that number was also dinged by his being on the ice for 13 shorthanded goals against.
For all of Kessel’s faults, the biggest issue is how to replace his productivity. His absence leaves a gaping hole on the left wall of the power play and on Malkin’s wing.
Alex Galchenyuk, the return from Arizona in the trade for Kessel, could provide the answer. But he comes in with the reputation of being “Phil Lite.”
The book on Galchenyuk is that he is a player with a good shot on the power play and lots of offensive potential, but he is erratic on defense and doesn’t put it all together on a nightly basis.
Similar to Kessel, who joined the Penguins at 28, Galchenyuk is a top-five draft pick who will be on his third squad at 25.
For the team’s sake, Sullivan better have more glowing words about Galchenyuk this time next year than he did about Kessel.