On June 27, 2014, Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford traded away one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL. James Neal is a 27-year-old with perceived character issues. Neal averages 0.4 goals per game.
Rutherford’s deal for Kessel sure seems like the steal of the offseason. The Penguins held onto top prospects like Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta. They even convinced Toronto to retain 15 percent of Kessel’s salary over the final seven years of his contract — perhaps the most valuable and underrated aspect of the trade for Pittsburgh.
But replacing James Neal with Phil Kessel essentially means Rutherford sits in the same position he started in 12 months ago.
Last week I wrote that the Penguins weren’t a ‘Phil Kessel’ away from a Stanley Cup. Nothing has changed about that opinion, but the challenge now rests on head coach Mike Johnston to maximize the output of Kessel and Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense.
Johnston told Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he hasn’t decided whether Kessel will play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin:
Johnston, who spoke with Kessel by phone Thursday, said that, although he was quite familiar with Kessel’s game, he would take the next week to watch tape and analyze him more deeply. That analysis will determine which line — or, more important, which center — will be most suitable for his new right winger.
Ryan Lambert at Yahoo! Sports ran the numbers and concluded that Kessel is in for a major boost in production, regardless of which center he ends up alongside. Other advanced statistics I looked into didn’t scream the name of Crosby or Malkin as the logical fit.
So let’s use the Mike Johnston approach and break down some tape.
First, I quickly ran through every Kessel goal since the beginning of 2013. The chart below summarizes Kessel goals that came off the rush in the reviewed sample. The X’s show where Kessel received the puck (via pass or turnover) prior to scoring:
The location of the X’s inside the offensive zone are to be expected for a right winger coming down his strong side on odd-man rush opportunities.
But I couldn’t believe how many rushes started with Kessel catching the puck in the neutral zone and never giving it up again prior to scoring. Sometimes that meant using his linemates as decoys and screens before firing wrist shots under the crossbar. Other times it meant simply attacking defensemen with speed to win a race:
Another thing that stood out from the clip above was Kessel’s willingness to support the breakout low in his zone as opposed to immediately taking off up the right side in anticipation of a change in possession. This breakout strategy — with the left winger posted high on the boards, the center down low, and the right winger coming across for support — is exactly what Mike Johnston used late in the season with the Penguins.
[Read More: Penguins Playbook: Breaking Down the Breakout]
But that’s not what I remembered from watching Kessel throughout his career. I remembered Kessel staying on the right side, using the threat of his speed and a potential cross-ice pass to put defenders on their heels.
I remembered…Phil Kessel under former head coach Randy Carlyle.
Carlyle was hammered in the hockey media for the awful puck possession metrics his Leafs teams put up. He was fired in early January 2015 and replaced by assistant coach Peter Horachek. While Horachek was able to improve Toronto’s possession stats, the Leafs record after he took over was an ugly 9-28-5.
Horachek had the Leafs focusing more on defense, but often at the expense of scoring goals. He wanted Kessel (and other forwards) committed to team defense, not cheating up the ice for breakaways.
Meanwhile, here’s Phil Kessel unleashed in the Carlyle era:
Both examples led to goals, but if I’m Mike Johnston, I unleash Kessel and let him fly. I’d also pair him up with Evgeni Malkin.
I know…the thought of Malkin and Kessel crossing paths in the neutral zone while the puck is still in their defensive zone is a scary thought for Penguins fans. What I like about Malkin is his underrated ability to put a long stretch pass onto the stick of a streaking winger.
Malkin and Kessel also play an instinctual style as opposed to the precise, tactical approach of Crosby. Much like Mario Lemieux, Malkin and Kessel know exactly when to take off up the ice before hockey fans (and most opponents) even realize there’s a breakaway opportunity. They react to the game as it unfolds, which can be a nightmare for linemates who don’t have the same mindset.
The final aspect worth analyzing is Kessel’s incredible shot release.
James Neal also has a deadly shot and scored at a 40-goal pace for most of his time in Pittsburgh alongside Malkin. Neal was able to find soft spots in defensive coverage (as Malkin commanded the attention of opponents) and then used his quick release to convert scoring chances.
[Read More: Analyzing James Neal’s Fast Start in Pittsburgh]
But Neal would become invisible without Malkin in the lineup. He couldn’t get his shot off when the spotlight was shining on him.
What’s interesting about Kessel is that despite mediocre linemates in Toronto, he still created a ton of offensive opportunities on his own. The key for Kessel wasn’t just his quick release, but again his instinctual ability to find open space on the ice.
Kessel’s individualistic style might make it difficult for him to immediately have chemistry with Malkin, but it’s not like Kessel spent his entire career on a line with Tyler Bozak. You might remember Kessel had plenty of success in Boston with playmaker Marc Savard (now of the Florida Panthers).
When it comes to quick releases, there’s another difference to consider between Neal and Kessel. Neal relies on a lot of short windup one-timers. As a left-handed shooter, he often needed to open up to receive passes from Malkin before hammering them past the goalie:
I rarely see Kessel even attempt a one-timer or slap shot. One reason might be because of the incredible flex in his stick in the picture above. A stick with greater flex allows for greater torque on quick wrist shots but provides no stability for slap shots or hard one-timers. Imagine trying to hit a tennis ball with a yard stick.
Having a right-handed scorer will be a huge upgrade for Malkin though. Instead of waiting for Neal to open up to receive a pass, Malkin and Kessel will be able to quickly pass back and forth. Here’s an example of Malkin with Neal 2-on-1 followed by an example of what 2-on-1’s with Kessel will look like:
The Penguins aren’t built to win many 1-0 and 2-1 games this season. Pittsburgh will need to outscore teams.
One week into free agency, Rutherford has little cap space left to sign an entire fourth line. He’s lost Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Paul Martin to free agency over the last 12 months and replaced them with high-potential but very inexperienced prospects.
The Kessel trade ensured that there is no long-term future for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The future is now.
But win or lose, the magic between Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel will be fun to watch.