Phil Kessel landed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the biggest trade of the NHL offseason. Now the focus turns to where in the lineup does he fit best.
Should Kessel, one of the game's purest goal scorers, be on a line with Sidney Crosby or with Evgeni Malkin?
That question already has become arguably the most debated topic of the summer.
The way Kessel plays, the Penguins would have a better chance to get the most out of him if he were on a line with Malkin. That's not a knock on Crosby, but there are myriad reasons Kessel and Malkin could, and likely should, work better than a pairing of Kessel and Crosby.
To figure out the future, a look to the past is in order. For this exercise, the best comparison to Kessel is James Neal, the former Penguins forward who now plays for the Nashville Predators.
Neal isn't typically a 40-goal scorer, but he was when he played with Malkin during the 2011-12 season. That's also when Malkin had his best season with 109 points, winning the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Trophy.
Kessel is a goal-scorer, and his best success comes from a high volume of shots. Malkin, more of a goal-scoring center, also must shoot the puck frequently. The season Malkin and Neal played together at even strength, they had 339 and 329 shots on goal, respectively. If the Penguins can figure out how to get Malkin and Kessel to each manage more than 300 shots on goal this season, they will be a better team.
Kessel averaged 300 shots on goal per season in his five 82-game seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He never played with a center comparable to Malkin while there.
The reason Neal thrived with Malkin is the same reason Kessel should. Neal had time to read and react off Malkin, who likes to carry the puck and play an east-west, change-of-speed game. Neal, reading Malkin, would play stealth-like and pop out in a scoring area at the right moment for a Malkin pass.
Together, Malkin and Neal were unpredictable, which worked to their advantage. Kessel, like Neal, can get open. And Kessel's shot, with its quick release, accuracy and heaviness, is better than Neal's.
With Kessel and Malkin on the ice together, there would be constant movement and interplay between two threats able to score on virtually any possession in the attacking zone.
Crosby plays more of a north-south game of direct lines and quick puck movement. Crosby's linemates have to think the game quickly, react quickly, and be ready in a hurry. He wants his wings to be predictable.
That's a big reason Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz have played so well with him. They thrive on finding pucks, especially inside the dots. They have the ability to score before the opportunity to score makes itself evident to others. Crosby is the one of best in the world at making something out of nothing in the blink of an eye.
The quickness with which Crosby wants to attack could take some of the unpredictability out of Kessel's game. The unpredictability, though, is part of what makes Kessel great. It certainly makes his shot great.
Crosby also likes to lead the rush, same as Kessel. Malkin prefers to hang back, waiting for a drop pass once the player leading the rush gains the next zone. Kessel would be able to lead the rush if he played with Malkin more often than if he played with Crosby.
None of this is to discount the potential Kessel would have with Crosby. That could be dynamic too, especially with Crosby's vision and Kessel's speed and ability to get open and finish.
What we're really talking about here is levels of success, because the difference between playing with Crosby or Malkin could be the difference in Kessel being a 40-goal scorer or a 45-goal scorer, with the potential to hit 50. Those added goals could be the difference between Pittsburgh finishing in the top three in the Metropolitan Division or being one of the two wild card teams from the Eastern Conference, or worse.
There is no wrong answer because Kessel can be successful at even strength with either of the Penguins' top centers. He'll likely play on the power play with both, and there should be times when the three of them play on the same line, such as after icing plays when the Penguins have a faceoff in the offensive zone.
Pairing Kessel with Malkin seems, at least on paper, like it would be sliding two puzzle pieces together to make a finished product, whereas pairing Kessel with Crosby might require some jamming and folding to try to make the pieces fit.