You’ve heard all the talk.
Phil Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scoring dynamo, is set to start the season skating alongside Sidney Crosby, meaning, golly-gosh gee whiz, he’s a lock to score 50.
Phil Kessel: first NHL's first 100-goal scorer!
No matter the number, the talk among hockey fans is that Kessel's at least going to be in the mix for the Rocket Richard Trophy this year.
Maybe he will be. But before we get into actually predicting his total, and the myriad reasons why playing in Pittsburgh should help him, it’s worth looking at a few reasons why Kessel may not suddenly become Mike Bossy reincarnate.
Kessel heads into this season as a 28-year-old, which, contrary to popular opinion, is on the wrong side of a goal scorer's prime (depressing though that may be).
It may not be the same for depth players, but from Wayne Gretzky on down, the pure point-getters tend to put up their biggest totals in the 20-26 range. And while Kessel apparently put in time working out with Gary Roberts this summer, there’s little reason to believe he’ll break that mold given his career-long reputation as someone unlikely to get a “commit to fit” tattoo.
Kessel is coming off his least-effective season to date, scoring 12 fewer goals than the previous season, while taking 25 less shots and tallying nearly 20 fewer points. He had one of his worst seasons in terms of generating scoring chances, putting up a scoring chances per 60 minutes total similar to his 19-goal, 37-point sophomore season.
Yes, the Leafs struggled and his shooting percentage was unusually low, but that doesn't void 82 games' worth of numbers.
Entering the stacked Metro Division that sports a range of goaltenders from above average to great, and overall scoring in the NHL consistently ticking down, it’s reasonable to temper expectations.
Now, Kessel is a unique goal-scorer. If you look at his goals from this past season, almost all were scored one of three ways: coming out of the D-zone at Mach 6 and cleanly beating the goalie with that patented snapper; firing a wrister through traffic from the left circle on the power play after simply holding it for awhile; or tapping in a backdoor pass, almost exclusively from James van Riemsdyk.
In Toronto - save for those few JVR dishes - Kessel was a player who didn’t rely heavily on his linemates (he did spend ample time with Tyler Bozak, after all). That either means he doesn’t use linemates a ton so it doesn’t matter who he plays with, or there’s huge potential for him to tack on goals actually generated by his linemates, which would see his numbers rise.
I’m leaning toward the latter, so let’s dive into reasons we can expect Kessel’s numbers to surge.
In basketball, there’s a stat that uses player tracking technology called gravity score. It measures how closely a player’s defender will stay to a guy who doesn’t have the ball. Great shooters like Steph Curry tend to have the highest gravity scores (“Don’t let that guy get open, he only needs a second to can it”), which opens up the floor for his teammates.
We don’t yet have a measure for this in hockey, but you can safely lay down your bankroll that nobody in hockey attracts more attention than Sidney Crosby, and that Kessel’s gravity score would dwarf whoever would've been second on last year’s Leafs.
The point is, the ice is about to open up incrementally for Crosby and Kessel as they draw defenders away from each another. And with Kessel’s release, that extra half-second is bad news for goalies. All the guy needs is looks, and he’ll undeniably get more playing with a high-gravity player like Crosby.
I’m not as quick as some others to look at shooting percentage and assume a guy with a low shooting percentage just had bad luck (often it’s players just not generating the space needed to get off clean shots, or not generating high-percentage scoring chances), but Kessel simply isn’t the 8.9 percent shooter he was last season. In the three previous seasons, he shot 12.5 percent, 12.4 percent, and 12.1 percent.
Expect a few more shots to result in goals this season as Kessel's shooting percentage returns to his norm, and the few extra tap-ins from Crosby to provide an additional bump.
Playing on a competitive team, Kessel should also be motivated for all 82 games. He also won't be the focal point of the offense for the first time in ages, relieving the burdensome pressure that he felt in Toronto. He'll be on a better powerplay too.
So, is Kessel about to reach unseen offensive heights? Or, are his recent stats the first signs of a player in decline?
My best guess? Yes, and yes.
I think Kessel exceeds his career high in goals, but I don’t think he quite gets into the Ovechkin/Stamkos stratosphere, let alone far beyond his best year to date. If he puts together another ironman season, I’ve got him pegged for 41 goals, which, of course, should be viewed as high praise for basically any hockey player on earth.