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Kessel ready to take leadership role with Coyotes

Forward acquired in trade from Penguins aiming to spur improvement by young team

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Phil Kessel is ready to embrace the role of leader with the Arizona Coyotes.

"I'm looking forward to it," Kessel told NHL.com on Thursday. "I haven't really got to have that in my career. I think it's going to be great. I'm going to do whatever I can to help these guys win and help them improve. [If] the young guys have questions or anything they want to talk about, I'm there to talk about it. Try to get our team better and them better."

The Coyotes were mostly interested in Kessel's offensive ability when they acquired him in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 29 for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

But Kessel, who has won the Stanley Cup twice, played for the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 2014 Sochi Olympics, and skated in the NHL All-Star Game three times during his 13 seasons, will be expected to do more than just skate up and down his wing on a team that hasn't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2012. Arizona was 39-35-8 last season, four points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference. Their scoring leader was 20-year-old forward Clayton Keller, who finished with 47 points (14 goals, 33 assists).

 

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"Everyone leads in their own way, and Phil can be a leader in the sense of grabbing young players and talking to them about those situations, what he sees, how he creates offense, how he's done it over a number of years, been one of the most successful guys in the League at doing that," Coyotes general manager John Chayka said Wednesday. "That was a big part of it. We wanted someone that has Phil's mind for the game and can help our young players in that sense."

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said he's spoken to Kessel about being part of a veteran leadership group that includes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, forwards Derek Stepan and Brad Richardson, and defenseman Jason Demers.

"He's going to accept the role of trying to help young guys, take the young guys out for dinner," said Tocchet, who was an assistant with the Penguins for Kessel's first two seasons. "It's a wider range of leadership for Phil coming here because it's a different dynamic, a different team (than the Penguins). But I still want him to be who he is. I don't want him to come in here with a hammer and say, 'I'm going to lead these guys.' I just need him to be a calming influence. Because I think he's got some good hockey knowledge that can help the young guys."

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Kessel, who turns 32 on Oct. 2, the day before Arizona's season opener at the Anaheim Ducks, said he's willing to lead in whatever way is needed.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy, to say the least," he said. "I just want to be a good guy. Guys can relate to me, and I like to have fun. If they want to talk hockey, I like to talk hockey too. But all in all, just enjoy ourselves first and foremost because if you enjoy yourself you can play your best. Be loose and be prepared to play."

Kessel said he's looking forward to having fun in Arizona after a tumultuous end to his time in Pittsburgh. He helped the Penguins win the Cup in 2016 and 2017 but had two points (one goal, one assist) when Pittsburgh was swept by the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round last season. After the loss, GM Jim Rutherford said he needed to make some changes. Kessel, who has a limited no-trade clause, had vetoed a trade before being sent to Arizona, Rutherford told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.

"You never know you're going to get traded, (but) you can always sense when your time maybe has come to an end," Kessel said. "I had a great four years there. But I'm really looking forward to the opportunity in Arizona, looking to prove myself again, show people what I've got. You always want to prove yourself and have a good year and have a big year, and hopefully we can do great things."

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