After signing an eight-year deal with the Maple Leafs at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Phil Kessel expected to be in Toronto for a long time – so he was surprised to find out he had been traded to Pittsburgh on the first day of free agency as part of a six-player deal.
But the superstar winger said he couldn’t be happier with how the situation played out – landing in Pittsburgh and getting the chance to play alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Kessel said. “I never thought I’d get a chance to play in Pitt and play with these guys, and I’m excited.”
As Kessel’s time in Toronto certainly had its ups and downs, the 27-year-old is embracing the chance to have a fresh start in Pittsburgh.
“Obviously the team’s great, they’ve got great players and I’ve heard nothing but good things about the city, so I’m really excited,” said the Wisconsin native. “The fans were always great when we played there, so it’ll be great to get a chance to play in front of them.”
It’s impressive what Kessel has accomplished so far in his career.
During the last five years, his 151 goals rank fourth (tied) in the NHL behind only Alex Ovechkin (206), Steven Stamkos (202) and Corey Perry (178).
During that same time period, Kessel ranks eighth (tied) among all NHL players with 339 points – making the Penguins the only club with three players ranked in the top-15 during that span. Crosby is fifth (tied) with 347 and Malkin is 15th with 321.
Overall, Kessel has broken the 20-goal and 50-point barriers for seven straight years. He’s a five-time 30-goal scorer and three-time NHL All-Star who possesses blazing speed, incredible skill and most of all, a shot that’s rivaled only by Ovechkin.
Now that Kessel will have one of two world-class players centering him, it’s scary to think of what he could do with the Penguins. Kessel will not only complement one of them on a line; head coach Mike Johnston said that the right-handed shot will be stationed in the left circle on the power play to finish passes from those two.
“It’s really exciting. Those are two of the best players of the world, if not the best players in the world,” Kessel said. “So whenever you get a chance to play with those guys, it’s a great opportunity and I’m thrilled.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We’re happy to have him on our team,” Crosby said via text after learning of the trade. “He brings a lot of speed and a great shot."
Those wheels are what Johnston likes the most about Kessel.
“The game is fast now and you have to be able to play fast,” Johnston said. “He’s a powerful skater. I know when we play against different players in the league, it’s how you prepare to play against them in your meetings where you realize how effective that player is.
“So when we’re playing against Kessel, there’s a lot of things we talk about with our team. His speed, for one, was a concern with our defense when we played against him.
“His shot, he has a very deceptive shot. He’s got a quick release. It’s challenging for our goaltenders, so we had to talk to our goaltenders about that.
“And just his ability on the power play. He finds seams and he has the ability to shoot, he has the ability to make plays. So he’s a versatile player in those three areas, and those are all important areas in the game today.”
It’s been a hectic few days for Kessel, who called while in the middle of vacation. Once he gets back, he plans on visiting Pittsburgh at some point before training camp to get acclimated with his new city. He also plans on working out with Gary Roberts to get ready for the upcoming season.
“It’s been an interesting last couple days,” Kessel said. “I was a little shocked. But I’m really happy to be a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins and I’m actually thrilled. It should be a lot of fun.”