Uncoachable, out of shape; bad teammate.
Junior phenom, elite scorer; cancer survivor.
Nice guy; tries hard; loves the game.
The American is a divisive personality among fans and those inside pro hockey, but the fact of the matter is, even at $8 million cap hit over the next six years, Kessel is one of the best hockey players on the planet, and can add the most coveted of elements to any NHL team.
It matters less about who the 27-year-old *is*. What’s important, from the point of view of a team looking to acquire his services, is who he *has been* and who he *will be*.
Phil Kessel and friends
To get an accurate sense of what Kessel brings to the table, first we need to find him some friends – peers with similar playing styles and career production.
In this case, we are looking for high-volume shooting wingers between the ages of 26 and 30 who have multiple 30-goal seasons to their credit. As it turns out, Phil’s in pretty good company.
Let’s look at some HERO charts (Even-strength production since 2012, credit OwnThePuck)
Phil Kessel (27 years old)
First-line minutes, first-line production; pure sniper. Not so good at preventing shots against.
Alex Ovechkin (29 years old)
First-line minutes, first-line production, but also no good at shot prevention. In addition, Ovechkin calls his own number so often when it comes to taking shots that he makes Kessel look like a playmaker in comparison.
His monstrous powerplay production has somewhat masked his noticeable decline as an even-strength scorer.
Rick Nash (30 years old)
Nash has been able to fend off the effects of age a little bit better than the Russian, considering that most goal-scorers peak between the ages of 23 and 26. Nash himself won the Rocket Richard Trophy at just 19, but has managed to maintain a high standard ever since.
However, he is also much, much less effective on the powerplay than both Ovechkin and Kessel. Once again, note the poor Corsi Against/60 numbers.
Max Pacioretty (26 years old)
Just as good at 5vs5 scoring as the 3 players above, but without the defensive warts and at a much cheaper cap hit. We're truly lucky to have him.
Phil Kessel and the future
Taking into account Kessel's track record as a scorer, I feel confident in saying that he is worth $8 million per year right now. But what about for the 6 remaining years on his current contract? There are a few factors working in the American's favor.
1) He broke into the league early
Kessel did not spend a day in the minors, started with the Bruins at 19 and was a 36-goal scorer by age 21. Guys who fall off cliffs by age 30 generally ride the buses in the minors until their early 20s, make the most of their physical peak, and then fade away as their strength, speed and quickness desert them. The aging curve is similar for most players, so what you get from a player between ages 18-21 will give you an idea of what to expect from him past his 30th birthday.
2) He can drive the play
Despite being poor at preventing shots against, Kessel is good enough at helping his team generate a large amount of shots in order to be a consistently positive possession player.
3) He's a volume shooter
Eric Tulsky has written about which types of players tend to age better and came to the conclusion that player who put more shots on net retain their scoring abilities better with time than those who rely on shooting for a high percentage. While he is a career 11.2% shooter, Kessel has also averaged over 3.3 shots per game since turning 21.
4) He might even get better
While known primarily as a shooter, Kessel is also a fairly good passer, especially on the powerplay. Only thing is, most people don't really see that because he has always been the number-one shooting option on whichever unit he has played on. A better supporting cast than the one he currently has in Toronto will allow him to both lard his assist totals on the man advantage, as well as find himself open more often to utilize his quick release.
5) He really doesn't look like a guy who'll fall off a cliff
The massive terms of his contract are definitely a point of concern, but Kessel's underlying numbers are really much better than those of Thomas Vanek, especially in terms of his abilities to create as opposed to just finishing chances.
Phil Kessel and you
Now, as a Habs fan, you probably won't get to cheer for Phil Kessel anytime soon, unless the Canadiens' front office does something wholly unexpected like at last year's trade deadline. The price to pay will be high in any case, and a few hefty contracts will have to be shipped out in order to make Kessel fit under the cap. You really can't expect these things to happen. It'd have to be a blockbuster trade with lots of moving parts, and a GM will close maybe one deal like this over the course of his career.
Still, I see Kessel as an uber-talent player who is perhaps undervalued due to things both outside of his control and utterly irrelevant to on-ice performance. The kind of player who could fly even higher with the right flock.
If the team trading for Kessel is able to help him with his shot prevention and his powerplay scoring, the right winger can be an elite player well into his 30s. Wouldn't it be nice to see him hop over the boards at the home side bench of the Bell Centre?