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Kessel ready for season to start

by Mark Madden / Pittsburgh Penguins

For right wing Phil Kessel, it's been a brave new world since he joined the Penguins via trade on July 1, 2015.

Kessel had been wrongly criticized for his conditioning while playing in Toronto, but has since left no stone unturned by training with fitness guru Gary Roberts, the iconic ex-Penguin. Once considered primarily a shooter, Kessel led the Penguins in assists last year with 47.

That's two more helpers than Sidney Crosby. The mind fairly races.

That's all small potatoes compared to Kessel's two-time dalliance with the Stanley Cup. Having a short vacation can be worthwhile.

"You don't really get a summer, to be honest," Kessel said. "A couple weeks off, and you've got to start again.

"But it's worth it. You obviously want a little more rest, but I'll take winning instead."

Kessel's playmaking output has much to do with center Evgeni Malkin being on the same line.

Kessel was clearly the primary triggerman when he was playing with the "HBK" line in 2015-16. But Kessel skated with Malkin much of last season, and will line up on his wing at the start of this campaign.

Kessel can score: 296 career goals, and 23 last season.

But Malkin can fill the net, also: 328 career goals, and 33 last season.

That gives Kessel a lot of options. Shoot or pass. Both are good.

"We have a good time," Kessel said. "Me and Geno get along great. We have a good relationship.

"Whenever you can get comfortable with a center, that helps. It's hard to jump around: Switch lines, or switch centers a lot. If you can make chemistry early and stick with someone for a long period of time, it makes it easier.

"Obviously, [Geno and I have] been practicing together, and we had some good games last year."

"Easy" would not be the word to describe Kessel's off-season training routine. He spent part of his summer working with Gary Roberts, who is considered ground zero when it comes to summertime workouts.

"Gary's a great trainer, and we have a great group," said Kessel, 30. "We have a lot of fun and we train hard."

"I think everybody in general is seeing, at 30, a decline in players' performances if they're not doing the right things off the ice," Roberts said. "I think Phil recognizes he needs to do a little more off the ice in order to keep him healthy and to give him [a chance] to be an elite player for a long period of time."

For the Penguins, 2017-18 is a season of transition.

Last campaign, the Penguins won a second straight Stanley Cup with virtually the same roster from the year before. Ben Lovejoy and Eric Fehr were the only losses of much significance.

But this past off-season, departures were numerous.

The "B" in HBK, Nick Bonino, is now a Nashville Predator. Matt Cullen went home, signing with Minnesota. Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay), Trevor Daley (Detroit), Ron Hainsey (Toronto) and Marc-Andre Fleury (Las Vegas) all have new addresses.

Kessel is nonplussed.

"We've won two Cups, so it's nice that we have a lot of guys around from that," Kessel said. "But we have some guys that are going to step in and do well."

Kessel saw limited action during the Penguins' exhibition schedule. He played in just three of seven games, notching a goal and assist.

"Two or three [exhibition games] is good," Kessel said. "Get out there and get a feel for it. We've played a long time the past couple years, so we're trying to get back into it and get our legs under us.

"We don't feel like we've had that much rest. But we're back into it, we're ready to go, and we're eager again."

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9, The X)

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