Phil Kessel. When he came to Pittsburgh he was leaving a clearly contentious relationship in Toronto. What’s happened since can only be described as a fairytale. Two cups in two years and Phil playing a huge role in both. Sometimes, it’s actually hard for me to remember Phil before he was a Penguin because that’s how well he fits in.
The Hart Trophy. It’s been taken home by every notable Pittsburgh Penguin forward since the 1980s. Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, and Malkin; each one has taken it home. And in 2018, it’s time to add another.
Through the unofficial midpoint of the season (the bye week) Kessel has 47 points. This seems paltry when compared to the 60 points put up by Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning, sure, but…
Kucherov’s Lightning has 10 players with 20 or more points and six with double-digits in goals. Kessel’s Penguins have six players with more than 20 points and six (slightly different) players with more than 10 goals. So Kessel, who is the first player not named Malkin or Crosby since the first lockout to pace the Penguins, and his goals are, arguably, more important.
Furthermore, the Hart is an award for being the team’s most valuable player, not the highest scoring one. Yes, overall the award goes to players who score more (see: Crosby, Sidney) but there are instances where it does not. Carey Price notably won the award in 2015 following a stellar campaign throughout the 2014-2015 season.
So what exactly has Phil done to earn it? Well, let’s take a look:
Phil’s got 18 goals so far this year, putting him on pace for another 30+ goal season, the sixth of his career. He’s just two away from securing his 10th straight 20+ goal season. Names who have achieved a similar accomplishment? Ovechkin’s got 20+ goals in every season since he entered the league (that’s 13 if you’re counting at home). Meanwhile, his teammates Crosby and Malkin have 10 and nine 20 goal seasons respectively.
But we’re talking about this year so I won’t digress too much. This year his 18 goals are split pretty nicely with seven coming on the Penguins frankly terrifying man-advantage and 11 coming at even strength. Considering this team scored two even-strength goals over a 10-day stretch at the end of December…this kind of consistent even-strength offense is key. Without his goals? This team would have been in even worse shape early on.
Then you look at his assists. Setting up goals isn’t something anyone ever talked about with Phil Kessel…but maybe they should be. His 29 assists pace the team (okay, it’s only one more than Sidney Crosby’s 28 but still). Furthermore, last season he set a career high in assists with 47. This year? He’s on pace to crush that with more than 50. And on the power play? He’s got 20 power play assists 14 of which are first assists.
His all situations shooting percentage is 11.47 which is a bit higher than it’s been since he joined the Penguins. Thing is, his 5 on 5 shooting percentage is the worst it’s been since he’s arrived. The number is being pulled up by his power play shooting percentage. But, his shooting percentage on the man advantage is actually on par with where it was last year and while it sits at 14.5 right now his career numbers usually end up someplace between 11 and 19. Additionally, his shooting percentage since joining the Penguins is down from his final three seasons in Toronto where he rocked around 12% so the 11.47? Could actually be more normal.
What He Means to the Penguins
This is the key to the Hart Trophy. The award goes to the player who..no pun intended..is the heart of their squad. And it’s pretty clear that Phil is a quiet leader in that locker room. He was visited this summer by his head coach and given the orders to give more and he’s delivered making himself an invaluable piece of this team. Additionally, Phil is a warrior. His ironman streak is older than a few of his teammate’s careers. He hasn’t missed a game since the first season when Crosby and Malkin’s Penguins were the reigning Cup Champions. He plays through anything and with anyone. He will fight like cats and dogs with Malkin but that’s how they’re most successful and he’s helped energize his teammates with that blistering shot. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances have been like this year, he’s been there. And that says a lot because he used to get a lot of crap for taking shifts off.
So, what do his fancy stats look like? Well, he’s got an impressive 59 corsi-for% in all situations. But let’s look at a stat we know the Penguins like… His scoring chances for. He’s rocking a 60.55% here which is the second highest of his entire career only to his first season in Pittsburgh where the numbers are buoyed a bit by the HBK run. Sure he starts the majority of his shifts in the offensive zone but when he’s that much of a threat… doesn’t it make sense to put him someplace he’s going to succeed?
Look, I get it, a lot of people are going to tell you Kucherov should win the Hart by a country mile this year. But I don’t think those people really understand what MVP means. It means the most valuable player on that team. Just look at McDavid last year, Price in 2015 and Malkin in 2012. Sure, if the Lightning didn’t have Kucherov they’d miss him but they have a lot of other incredible players who have been just as important to this run they’re on. The way the first part of this year went? If the Penguins hadn’t had Phil? There is a very good chance they would be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs already.