For the Thrill of it: A closer look at Phil Kessel’s special career

You open the classified ads up, and there it is. The same car is for sale, by owner, for the third time in a decade. Each time it sells, there is excitement from the buyer, relief from the seller, and confusion from those not included in the transaction. It has some serious mileage, yet appears to run as smoothly as it did when it came off the lot. It handles well. It may not be as sleek as some of the other vehicles in the ads that summer, but it shows no signs of slowing down. Each time, the owner is just looking for something different.

The ad reads “2006 model, comes with 350 goals, 800 points, and nearly a thousand games played. Two Stanley Cup rings included.” Phil Kessel has been moved again, and now it’s the Arizona Coyotes who will take him for a spin.

When Phil Kessel was drafted 5th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, the hype was at a fever pitch. He had lit the US National Development Program on fire, breaking program records for goals (104) and points (180) before heading to the University of Minnesota. He was WCHA Rookie of the Year in 2006, and by the time he ever played for the B’s, he had already suited up in a pair of World Junior Championships and a World Championship.

But after a 21-year old season that saw him score 36 goals for the Bruins, Boston moved on from the American winger, sending him to Toronto for a package of picks that would turn into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. Maximizing an asset’s value and “selling high” is an ideal goal for any General Manger, but that trade in 2009 wouldn’t be the first time Kessel was moved after a strong season. In 2015, the Maple Leafs sent him to the Pittsburgh Penguins following a campaign that saw his 61 points pace the Toronto roster. And when the Pens decided to move on from him this offseason? The 31-year-old was fresh off an 27 goal, 82 point year. It’s almost like each team is anticipating Kessel’s eventual regression, assuming the return they receive for the star will surely outweigh what they’re shipping away in the long run. Yet, Phil Kessel keeps playing and keeps producing.

Phil Kessel is a tough player to categorize. One could argue that he was and is most easily classified as a dynamic goal scorer. That was his most recognizable attribute when he burst onto the scene 13 years ago, and it still applies. However, since he entered the league in 2006, his ability to pass the puck has put him in some rarified air among NHL wingers.

Name Games (2006-2019) Assists
Patrick Kane 903 582
Daniel Sedin 909 509
Alex Ovechkin 1003 499
Phil Kessel 996 466
Blake Wheeler 860 454
Jakob Voracek 846 444
Jason Pominville 1002 422

Considering he registered just 36 assists in his first two seasons, that fact that Kessel trails just Patrick Kane, Daniel Sedin, and Alex Ovechkin in helpers is telling. All three will stroll, first ballot, into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Combine the underrated playmaking with his ability to score goals, and the native of Madison, Wisconsin again proves he deserves to be mentioned with this era’s greatest wingers.

Name Games (2006 – 2019) Goals Points
Alex Ovechkin 1003 606 1105
Patrick Kane 903 356 938
Phil Kessel 996 357 823
Daniel Sedin 909 310 819
Corey Perry 932 359 751
Thomas Vanek 948 348 741
Jarome Iginla 846 340 730

So, why is it that Kessel is rarely given his due, or even appreciated to an extent that his numbers suggest he deserves? Often, when an elite-level point machine is treated with such flippant disregard, his game has major holes in other areas, or lacks the playoff pedigree to support his game translates to the toughest hockey.

Phil Kessel will never challenge for a Selke Award as the NHL’s best defensive forward, but he tends to be a positive player when it comes to puck possession, naturally leading to more offensive situations than defensive. In fact, his CF% (Corsi For % in All Situations – meaning the amount of time his team was controlling the puck when he is on the ice) has been above 50% every single season. Those numbers are understandably padded by his lack of time on the penalty kill, but with five seasons above 57%, it can’t be ignored. As for his fitness and toughness? Well, look no further than his ability to suit up, night after night and year after year.

Name Active GP StreakGames behind Jarvis (NHL Record)
Keith Yandle 797 167
Patrick Marleau 788 176
Phil Kessel 774 190
Brent Burns 471 493
Drew Doughty 410 554
Dimitry Orlov 346 618
Jaccob Slavin 303 661
Adam Henrique 297 667

Kessel may not play a physical brand of hockey, but it speaks volumes that he has played 774 consecutive games, having suited up every chance possible since November 3rd, 2009. That fall, Kessel had shoulder surgery and missed the first 12 games of the campaign. In 2006, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and had the necessary surgery, the winger missed just 11 games. So while he has thrown just 155 hits in his CAREER, Kessel has shown the ability to stay healthy and on the ice. That is, after all, where the team pays him to be. Currently, his ironman streak is the 8th longest in history, and 190 games back of the 964 Doug Jarvis strung together. His 996 career games is more than 100 more than Nicklas Backstrom, his closest contemporary from the 2006 draft.

And, if staying healthy and productive in the regular season isn’t enough to sway the most vocal of his critics, maybe Kessel’s playoff production will. He made the postseason just three times in his first nine seasons; twice with a building Boston squad, and just once with a Maple Leafs roster that was abundant with expectations but drastically short on talent. However, in his four campaigns in Pennsylvania, he has been as good as anyone in the National Hockey League. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin deserve every ounce of credit heaped upon them when recalling the Penguins’ run to back-to-back Stanley Cups. With that said, the quirky winger from Wisconsin more than had his say in his team’s success.

Name GP Goals Assists Points +/-
Evgeni Malkin 48 16 30 46 10
Sidney Crosby 48 14 32 46 2
Phil Kessel 49 18 27 45 17

To further contextualize Kessel’s impact over the course of his NHL career, one must look outside the league, and consider his work on international ice. He has represented USA on thirteen occasions, including two World Junior Championships, three World Championships, and a pair of Olympic Games. Among American NHLers, he sits 11th in career goals and 16th in points. The list of American-born players with 350 goals and multiple Stanley Cups is a brief one; just Brett Hull, Joe Mullen, Bill Guerin, Patrick Kane, and Kessel have achieved the feat.

And compare him with Mullen, along with five other Hall-of-Famers through their first 13 seasons of play? The man they call The Thrill looks to be on track to join them in those hallowed halls.

Name GP Goals Points Era Adj. Pts Point Shares   
Dino Ciccarelli 907 485 957 776 80.7
Phil Kessel 996 357 823 923 92.2
Joe Mullen 926 471 989 816 85.4
Joe Nieuwendyk 835 425 823 794 84.6
Mark Recchi 932 388 1010 1008 96.4
B. Shanahan 947 435 879 865 90.2

Five Hall of Famers and Phil Kessel. But when looking at era adjusted points, it is Kessel that moves up to second on the list, ahead of Ciccarelli, Mullen, Nieuwendyk, and Shanahan. Point shares also are favourable for the 31 year old, where he sits second among the hefty company. The Point Shares formula, without getting too in depth, is broken up into Offensive Point Shares (OPS), and Defensive Point Shares (DPS), evaluating goals created for and against, time on ice, marginal goals for and against, and using a ratio that differs for forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders. Critics may suggest team success was important to the others’ candidacy, but as we already covered, Kessel has his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup twice. Among his contemporaries, his career stacks up with some of the finest players of his generation. There are just five active players with 800 career points to go along with multiple Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, and Phil Kessel.

Now that Kessel is on his fourth team, and will be 32 year old when his 14th season starts this fall, it is entirely possibly and more than likely that we have seen the best, most impactful years of a tremendous career. Traded as a 21 year old, heavily criticized in Toronto, and overlooked in Pittsburgh, Kessel has often been the target of dismissive dialogue among media and fans alike. Shots have been made at his fitness, his lack of physicality, and his unique personality that, at times, had him at odds with the very reporters who were controlling the narrative. But it would be foolish to not appreciate Phil Kessel in the final half-decade of his career.

The Coyotes have bought that 2006 model. Sure it has plenty of miles on it, but if history has proven anything, #81 shows no signs of slowing down. One day, surely, Kessel will dress in his final game, closing the book on a Hall of Fame career. But for now, let’s enjoy him. For the Thrill of it.

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