Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phil Kessel ... Stanley Cup add-on who made it work

By Larry Wigge

Exhiliration. Finally, winning the Stanley Cup was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"Who could have dreamed a year ago this could have happened?" explained Kessel. "The feeling is unreal."

After nine seasons of success, when you consider 30 goals or more as success. Kessel had achieved 30 or more goals six times in his first nine seasons in the NHL -- twice putting up 37 goals. Phil the Thrill went to the Pittsburgh Penguins and, while it was a complete turnaround, those feelings of being misjudged, mischaracterized.

POOF!!! It disappeared.

"I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?" Kessel said. "Winning the Stanley Cup is what you dream of and what you play for."

Those three years at Boston and six at Toronto were forgotten -- as was the first two-and-one-half months in Pittsburgh after Kessel just didn't mix with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and a coaching change had to be made.

As a member of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins he was given two days with the Cup. He chosen Madison, Wisconsin, his birthplace, and also the Toronto SickKid's Hospital. Kessel, who survived testicular cancer after being diagnosed in 2006, was involved with the hospital during his six seasons with the Maple Leafs from 2009-15.

Kessel was selected fifth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by Boston. He last season with Pittsburgh with 26 goals and 33 assists, including 19 goals and 25 assists after the coaching change.

He more than made up for that by tallying a club-high 12 goals and 21 assists in 24 games to give Kessel 23 goals and 20 assists in 46 career playoff games.

From persona non grata in Toronto 12 months earlier to key contributor in a Stanley Cup march in Pittsburgh -- just unreal, right?

"I felt fine with this deal from Day 1," GM Jim Rutherford said of trading prospects Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kaspanen and Scott Harrington to Toronto. "It's hard to find guys that can score goals or set them up. If it's not happening every game, I guess some people think it should. That's not the way sports works. We did what we needed to do where our team is. Toronto did what they needed to do with what they're trying to do.

"I really like how Kessel has fit into the team. We have top players -- the best player in the game -- but we also have a team concept. Phil's bought into that right from the start. So I like how he's fit into the team. The rest of the stuff? You see it on the ice."

Even sweeter for Rutherford and the Penguins is that the Leafs are paying $1.2 million a year of his $8 million cap hit. At a $6.8 million cap hit, Kessel was easily worth every dime in his first year in Pittsburgh.

Including in that clutch performance by Keseel, it was the game-winning assists on a goal by Nick Bonino in overtime to eliminate the Washington Capitals. Kessel, Bonino and Carl Hagelin were a third-line that put up first-line numbers.

Matt Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup at Carolina in 2006, was able to fit in as well ... as a fourth-line center.

"He's been so good," raved Cullen. "He's playing such a complete game right now. He's just such a dynamic player. Whenever he touches the puck, something good happens and it's not just shooting the puck. He's creating, things happen with his speed, he's finding open guys. He's such a challenge for defensemen to handle. He's been awesome."

Mike Sullivan got all the credit, taking over for Mike Johnston at midseason. Much of it was deserved, of course, for putting in working order. But ...

"Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win. I didn't do anything," said Sullivan. "We have a very transparent relationship. I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win.

"I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don't get to where we're at if Phil doesn't play the type of hockey that he's played here throughout the course of this playoffs. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He's dangerous on the power play. He's dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does -- his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink. He's a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he's one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion."

Speaking of captain Crosby, "He just doesn't necessarily want to be in front of the camera. But I think he is pretty easy going, laid back and funny to be around."

St. Louis center David Backes raved about Kessel.

"He's definitely got a special ability and that's why he's got 30 goals in the NHL already and that's why he's able to score like he did," Backes said. "He's always around the puck, he's got great timing to arrive right when it does and his finish is great as well."

Backes has detected a difference in Phil within the context of the Team USA dressing room -- where all the key elements of the 2010 Olympic silver medal team are four years older and far more mature as players.

"Everyone's really had a lot of growth in their personal lives and in the poise they're showing on the ice and he's no exception," Backes said. "He's a guy that's grown as a person and shown on the ice that he can handle big-time situations. He's a player that's out there and making plays all the time."

"I'm so thrilled," a beaming Kessel said. "I, I, I don't even know what to say.

"The Cup was way heavier than I thought it was going to be. It's so special. You dream your whole life for this."

Kessel is very understated about his exploits, but his eyes light up when you discuss his favorite topic, skating.

"My parents were both good athletes, so I think I get some of my ability from the them," Kessel said. "My dad, Phil Sr., was a college quarterback and he played in the Canadian football league. My mom, Kathy, ran track in college. I think I get my speed from my mother. I just always loved to skate, loved it right from the beginning when I was a little kid. Back then, I was always saying, "Mom, I'm going skating." For me, it was always my favorite thing to do, skating."

Phil Kessel Sr. attended Northern Michigan University from 1976-81. Steve Mariucci was the NMU quarterback in Kessel's freshman season and stayed on as a graduate assistant. Mariucci helped coach Kessel in his senior year. Kessel was drafted by the Washington Redskins and spent his first year on injured reserve. The second season, "They found out I wasn't very good and released me." He went to Calgary and played for the Stampeders in the Canadian Football League and then Birmingham in the old USHL.

Amanda, his sister, herself a world-class hockey player, who won a silver medal with the U.S. team in Sochi --- also posted a picture of herself drinking from the trophy.

The father is as glib and analytical as the son is brief and shy. Dad was asked if the reticence comes from Mom.

"I was exactly the same way when I was his age," said Kessel Sr. "I really wasn't comfortable talking until almost my mid-20s. "Phil says what happens on the ice is what matters. Mostly all we heard from him when he was a kid was, 'Mom, I'm going skating.'"

Since 1996, only 13 players have produced more points per game in the postseason (minimum 40 games) than Phil Kessel (0.94). The Wisconsin native sits a touch below Alex Ovechkin (0.98), but ahead of similar scorers, past and present, such as Dany Heatley, Corey Perry, Paul Kariya and Brett Hull, albeit in significantly fewer games.

One of the NHL's most polarizing figures of the past decade pinched his eyes to try to stop the tears, the hugs from his family members only making it harder to do so.

Phil Kessel, Stanley Cup champion, playoff warrior, and now forever more seen in a different light.

"I mean, it's an unbelievable feeling, obviously it's special," said the teary-eyed Kessel.

"It's been a journey," Kessel later added, a lump in his throat.

Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux credited Jim Rutherford after the Cup win.

"He deserves a lot of the credit, starting with the Phil Kessel trade," Lemieux said. "That was a big piece. You saw how he played in the playoffs, just an amazing competitor."

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