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Kessel seeks boost from playing alongside Hall with Coyotes

Forward who has eight goals is building chemistry with new teammate

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Phil Kessel's smile said it all.

Center Christian Dvorak swiped the puck behind the net and whipped it through the crease to the left circle. Forward Taylor Hall backhanded it into the slot. Kessel one-timed it.

And it went in, giving the Arizona Coyotes a 1-0 lead against the Minnesota Wild at Gila River Arena on Thursday.

Arizona's big additions teamed up on a goal for the first time, a good sign for the team in general and Kessel in particular.

Video: MIN@ARI: Kessel sends puck through Dubnyk's five-hole

"I've had some talks with Phil," coach Rick Tocchet said. "I think this will help him. Taylor will help him."

Before the Coyotes acquired Hall from the New Jersey Devils on Monday, they acquired Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 29. The logic was essentially the same: Here was a strong defensive team on the cusp of the Stanley Cup Playoffs adding an elite offensive talent.

Kessel has not produced as expected. He has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 37 games, putting him on pace for 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) over 82 games, low for a forward who has averaged 63 points (27 goals, 36 assists) per season.

Video: NSH@ARI: Kessel fires home second power-play goal

But there are reasons for that, and there are reasons to believe it will change, Hall among them.

Tocchet said Kessel had a good training camp and a good start, then played through a nagging injury. Kessel hasn't missed a game since Oct. 31, 2009. He has played 811 straight games, the third-longest active streak in the NHL and seventh-longest in League history.

"There's about seven, eight games there that he was definitely 80 percent," Tocchet said.

Kessel is averaging 2.43 shots on goal per game, well below his career average of 3.24, and his shooting percentage is 8.9 percent, well below his career average of 10.9 percent. 

"I haven't lived up to my normal billing," Kessel said. "I've had chances all year. I just … For some reason, I can't bury them this year. My shooting percentage, I don't even know what it is. I mean, it's almost impossible to shoot that bad."

Tocchet, who worked with Kessel as an assistant with the Penguins from 2014-17, wants Kessel to shoot more and quicker. He said Kessel has been thinking too much.

Video: COL@ARI: Kessel roofs sharp-angle shot in close

"He's just waiting too long, where the Phil Kessel we all know, it's off his stick," Tocchet said. "If goalie makes a save, he makes a save. But do it on Phil Kessel's terms, not the goalie's terms."

Kessel has helped the power play, which has jumped from 26th in the NHL last season (16.2 percent) to 10th this season (21.2 percent). He does video breakdowns with Tocchet and is part of the game-planning process, and he leads the team in power-play goals (six) and is tied with center Clayton Keller for the team lead in power-play points (11).

The 32-year-old has also helped in the dressing room, mentoring younger players. Part of that is showing how to stick with it through a slump. Kessel has been through many spells like this and ended up with good numbers.

"In the years past, we didn't have that guy that's kind of your lead horse, the guy that's done it before that people look to," general manager John Chayka said. "Your team can get frustrated. They can get down. You can lose confidence pretty quick in this league, especially young players, good young players.

"Phil's seen it all. He's gone through stretches where he hasn't scored in his career before. He's gone through playoff success, playoff failure. He's gone through fans getting on him. He's seen it all. He's done it all. So, nothing bothers him. Nothing phases him.

"And he's actually played really good hockey. If you look at his scoring chance creation and his ability to create for others, he's done a really nice job of creating offense for us. The puck hasn't gone in."

Hall could help change that. After the trade, Tocchet put Hall on the left wing with Dvorak and Kessel at 5-on-5, and said he would be crazy not to put Hall and Kessel on the flanks on the power play. Hall forechecks and retrieves pucks while making highly skilled plays.

If Hall and Kessel develop chemistry, that should lead to more puck possession and better looks, which should lead to more confidence and less thinking, which should lead to more shots and more production and … well, a snowball effect.

The Coyotes play the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-D, FS-A, FS-A PLUS, NHL.TV).

"I know Phil," Tocchet said. "He'll heat up. He's conscious of it. There's nobody that feels bad [more] than him. I don't want him to feel bad. We're doing well as a team. He knows he has to step it up, but I still think he's done some other stuff that's helped our team."

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