Expectations surrounding Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel were sky-high entering the 2015-16 season. It may have taken awhile, but he has saved his best for last.
Kessel, drafted on average with the 11th pick in Yahoo leagues, was a borderline top-100 fantasy asset based on performance for much of the season but has been the third-best fantasy player based on standard-category coverage in the past month. Now, he's ranked inside the top-50 assets (47th) for the season with five games remaining.
He had two goals, a plus-3 and five shots on goal Thursday against the Nashville Predators, giving him 16 points (six goals, 10 assists), a plus-11, 10 penalty minutes, four power-play points and 56 SOG in his past 16 games.
The most surprising part of this development is Kessel is doing his damage on a line separate from Sidney Crosby and in the absence of his most frequent center linemate, Evgeni Malkin. After the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Kessel to Pittsburgh last summer, his upside hinged on him playing with one of the Penguins' star centers.
Things haven't panned out that way, but the Penguins and Kessel's patient fantasy owners are certainly not complaining.
Kessel's outburst has paved the way for Nick Bonino to emerge as a trending fantasy pickup in the final weeks of the regular season. Bonino entered into Pittsburgh's top-six group following the injury to Malkin on March 11. In his 10 games since, Bonino has played with mostly Kessel and Carl Hagelin, and has four goals and seven assists, with five of those points coming in a tide-turning game for him and Kessel on March 26 at the Detroit Red Wings.
Bonino has two goals, one assist and seven SOG in his past two games, spiking his ownership to 12 percent in Yahoo. If you have Kessel on your roster or just need a spark as your championship round materializes, Bonino is one of the more viable options out there in deep leagues.
Video: BUF@PIT: Kessel seals the win for the Penguins in SO
All in all, Kessel has turned a disappointing start into a refreshing finish. Since Dec. 21, Kessel has 38 points, a plus-12 and 156 SOG in 45 games. Prior to that, Kessel had 18 points, a minus-3 and 100 SOG in his first 32 games.
One interesting component, though, has been his stable shooting percentage and shot volume in good times and bad. In his early-season struggles, he shot 9.0 percent. Since Dec. 21, he has shot 10.3 percent, only slightly better. Even in the past month, his shooting rate is 10.7 percent.
That's a sign of the patience of Kessel and the coaching staff since Mike Sullivan was hired to replace Mike Johnston on Dec. 12. Kessel was not benched for his struggles. The Penguins trusted his track record and ability, and were able to give him his own space in Malkin's absence to create more offense.
Since the coaching change, Crosby leads the League in scoring with 61 points in 48 games. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is tied for seventh with 47 points in 42 games. Kessel has 39 in 49 games (T-23rd). Pittsburgh is 29-15-5 with the most goals in the NHL (154) and a plus-31 goal differential since the change. The Penguins have passed the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division and are a glaring dark horse in the Eastern Conference with the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the horizon.
Video: NSH@PIT: Kessel scores in 1st and 2nd period
It's been a bumpy ride for Kessel, whose power-play production (15 PPP) has taken a big step back from his total last season in Toronto (25). That said, he was one of the most disappointing second-half fantasy players in 2014-15 -- the opposite of this season. He finished 79th in Yahoo's rankings last season, largely because of his minus-34 (tied for second-worst in NHL). This season, his similar point production and shot volume has come with a more efficient plus-minus (plus-9).
This is further proof that patience is the greatest virtue for fantasy owners, especially early on in the season and with a player of Crosby or Kessel's caliber. They haven't formed the lethal combination most envisioned after the trade, but Kessel's value has significantly improved fantasy-wise and the Penguins are much better off with him in the fold.