Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel has been faster, dominant, slightly grittier and a far more dangerous scoring threat in the past few games with Nick Bonino as his center than he ever was with Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby.
To maximize the value Kessel brings to the lineup, the Penguins need to keep him away from Crosby and, when healthy, Malkin.
The attributes that make Kessel an elite scorer are hidden when he plays with Malkin or Crosby because, like Kessel, they want to have and dominate the puck.
Malkin gets the puck and slows the game down, playing more of a swooping east-west game, whereas Kessel thrives in a quick transition game. Crosby grinds away in the offensive zone and uses his otherworldly skills to create chances. That's not Kessel's game, either.
Kessel's high-end speed and skill comes out when he plays with Bonino, because Kessel can hold and dominate the puck the same way he did when he played with Tyler Bozak with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kessel routinely scored 30-plus goals and was a point-per-game player with Bozak until the Maple Leafs collapsed last season. Kessel is on pace for 25 goals and 58 points, which would be his worst offensive season since 2009-10, in part because the Penguins have been adamant about him working with one of their elite centers.
It hasn't worked.
Bonino, just like Bozak, works for Kessel because he literally works for Kessel.
He's giving Kessel the puck and going to the front of the net. When the Penguins lose the puck, Bonino is digging away to get it back. Carl Hagelin is doing the same thing. Kessel is following suit. That's why they're retrieving the puck, finding and creating scoring chances.
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Kessel had five points in a 7-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings last Saturday. He had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Provided the status quo remains, the Penguins should go into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Kessel, Hagelin and Bonino making up their second line. If they advance, potentially giving Malkin enough time to return from his upper-body injury, coach Mike Sullivan has to seriously consider finding new linemates for Malkin. Kessel shouldn't be one of them.
But what about next season? Can the Penguins go into next season with Kessel technically on their third line yet carrying a $6.8 million salary cap charge?
A few years ago, the Penguins were trying to re-sign Jordan Staal to a contract worth at least $6 million per season so he could be their third-line center. The theory was if they had one top forward on each of their first three lines, they could fill in the rest around them. It just so happened Crosby, Malkin and Staal gave them three top centers.
They don't need three top centers if one of their top forwards is Kessel.
Even on the third line, Kessel could play 16-18 minutes per game because of allotted time on the power play. Sullivan would have the option of bumping him up to play with Malkin and Crosby if they're chasing a goal late in the game. He could put the three of them on the ice after an icing.
But what if the Penguins don't want a $6.8 million player on their third line because he doesn't fit with either of their top two centers? Does that mean they would consider trading Malkin or Crosby?
It's a longshot, but yes, provided one of them (not both) would be open to waiving their full no-move clause.
If the Penguins even broach the topic with either of the players and make it happen, they could get needed cap flexibility. Malkin carries a $9.5 million cap charge. Crosby carries an $8.7 million cap charge.
It's impossible to predict what the market would be for them, but you'd have to imagine the Penguins would get assets to use immediately.
It would also give them the chance to protect a younger player (examples: Olli Maatta, Oskar Sundqvist, Derrick Pouliot) from a potential expansion draft. Malkin and Crosby would have to be protected in a potential expansion draft if the NHL and NHL Players' Association rules players with no-move clauses can't be exposed to an expansion team.
Trading either would be franchise-altering, but what if the Penguins lose in the Eastern Conference First Round again? They'll be seven years removed from their Stanley Cup championship with four series wins, one trip past the second round, and four first-round exits. Maybe change would be good.
Regardless of what they decide, the Penguins have to continue to put Kessel in the best position to succeed, which means keeping him away from Crosby and, when healthy, Malkin.