The 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs are starting to turn into the Phil Kessel show for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kessel was the most visible and most dominant player in their 4-2 Game 3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night, scoring his seventh goal of the playoffs, assisting on another, recording eight shots on goal and creating a seemingly endless number of scoring chances. At one point in the second period the NBC broadcast credited him with eight scoring chances by himself. At the same point in the game the Lightning had 10. As a team.
With his two-point effort on Wednesday -- the Pens now lead the Eastern Conference finals 2-1 -- he is up to 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 14 playoff games this postseason. That not only leads the Penguins, it is more than any other player in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the third most in the entire league, trailing only San Jose Sharks teammates Logan Couture (19) and Brent Burns (18).
Kessel has scored goals this postseason off the rush, he has beaten some of the best goalies in the league (Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby) with what is one of the NHL's best and quickest shots, and he is consistently displaying his underrated playmaking ability.
Pittsburgh's first goal on Wednesday, a Carl Hagelin goal with 10 seconds remaining in the first period, was the result of him taking a Jonathan Drouin turnover, blowing past Victor Hedman, one of the NHL's best defenders and getting a puck on net that turned into a rebound opportunity for Hagelin to put in behind Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Great celebration Carl. @penguins lead. #StanleyCuphttps://t.co/Ih5y2H9edL— #StanleyCup Playoffs (@NHL) May 19, 2016
After the game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper, when talking about Kessel's line that also includes Nick Bonino and Hagelin, mentioned that Kessel probably "doesn't get near the respect he deserves" around the league.
Jon Cooper: "Phil Kessel doesn't get near the respect he deserves."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 19, 2016
Cooper is not wrong. As Kessel continues to pile up points this postseason things might finally be starting to shift a bit for him and his reputation as a player. Instead of being Phil Kessel, the guy you can not win with, he is becoming Phil Kessel, one of the driving forces behind one of the best teams in the NHL.
All it took was for him to get the opportunity to play with good players around him.
The crazy thing about it all is that Phil Kessel did not suddenly become good overnight or at the start of the 2016 playoffs. He has always been one of the game's top offensive players. Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2006-07 season he is 12th among active players in goals scored. During a three-year stretch between 2011 and 2014 he had more points than every player in the NHL except for one (Claude Giroux), and was fourth in goals scored.
He was the fifth-leading goal scorer in the league and a top-15 point producer during his six-year career with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Even though those are superstar numbers, he was never really viewed as such during his time with the team. Instead, the discussion would usually focus on his willingness to speak to the media, or his conditioning (even though he almost never misses a game), or something else other than the fact he was consistently one of the most productive players in the NHL.
The fact that Toronto gave up first-round draft picks that would turn into top-10 selections Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton did not help him, either. But that was never his doing.
At times, it almost seemed as if he was the scapegoat for everything that went wrong with the Leafs. But if you can't build a competitive team around one of the NHL's most productive players in the six years that you have him, which also happen to be the prime years of his career, it is not his fault that the team isn't winning. You can't expect one player to put an entire organization on his back and make it good when there is almost nothing else around him.
When the Maple Leafs finally traded him to Pittsburgh over the summer (and retained a significant portion of his salary) the reactions in some places were more positive (and in one case, surreal) than negative.
To be fair, there were very legitimate reasons for the Maple Leafs to trade Kessel.
The team was in the early stages of a massive rebuild and Kessel was a valuable trade chip that could bring back future assets (and with Kasperi Kapanen and a 2016 first-round draft pick, he did). By the time the team is ready to compete down the line, Kessel will be well into his declining years as a scorer. He has probably already started to enter that phase, but he is still more productive than most players in the league. Even though the reasons were legit for the Leafs' long-term well being, it was not going to do anything but make the current on-ice product in Toronto significantly worse in the short term.
Kessel had a slow start to the season in Pittsburgh, but he started to fit in more as the season progressed, and like most every other player on the team Kessel seemed to get a lift after the mid-December coaching change. When he was put on a line with Bonino and Hagelin, everything started to click, and it is to the point now where that trio is the one group the Penguins absolutely refuse to split up. And for good reason. They are dominating, and because he is playing on a team that has talent around him, he is able to shine once again on the biggest stage in the NHL.
Speaking of which, after Wednesday there are now only four active players in the NHL that have played a minimum of 30 playoff games and average more than a point per game. Two of them are Kessel's current teammates, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Another is Mike Cammalleri.
The fourth is Phil Kessel.