Phil Kessel, player of 320 straight games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has done a lot of great things since joining this organization, including, but not limited to, winning the Stanley Cup in each of his first two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Over the course of his 988 game career spanning across 13 seasons, Kessel has taken a lot of flak and endured even more than any human should ever have to, ranging from overcoming testicular cancer to being accused of being obsessed with hot dogs and being run out of Toronto to even being left off of Team USA rosters because he’s not David Backes. (Not being David Backes is, objectively, a good thing.)
Lately, the new flak aesthetic is hammering Phil! for not scoring enough at 5-on-5. Exhibit A:
What in the world is going on with Phil Kessel? It was another poor performance from Kessel, who didn’t come particularly close to scoring while making zero impact in 5-on-5 situations. He doesn’t have an even-strength goal since Jan. 31.
Part of that is true: Phil Kessel has not scored an even-strength goal since January 31st.
For a player that has scored 30+ goals 6 times in his career, including 34 last season, has scored 20+ even-strength goals also 6 times in his career (and 19 one season), and has one of the most lethal and violent shots in the league, this is admittedly a concern.
However, the above quote comes following a game in which Kessel attempted 4 shots himself at 5-on-5, 2 behind the team-high of 6. He also created 2 scoring chances himself, one fewer than the team-high, also at 5v5. In all even-strength situations, Kessel attempted 5 shots, second-most, and created a team-high 3 scoring chances for himself.
That’s far from “zero impact,” but the underlying point remains: Phil Kessel hasn’t scored a goal at even-strength since the calendar turned to February.
Despite this, Kessel has found himself on 73 points from 74 games, scoring 24 goals and 49 assists. Unless he scores about 2.5 points per game the rest of the season, he won’t eclipse his career high of 92 points he scored last season, but his 0.99 points per game pace right now currently tracks to finish as his joint second-best season on record.
The hangup, of course, is that he’s scored just 13 even-strength goals this season, or 54.17%. Over the course of his career, his 252 even-strength goals accounts for 71.19% of his overall 354 goals and, since joining the Pengiuns, he’s scored 72 of his 107 goals at even-strength (67.29%).
So, in terms of his share of even-strength goals, you could make the case that this is a bit of a “down” year for him. Events like Kessel walking in and wiring shots home with regularly don’t stand out in your mind as much this season.
When you look at his individual shot-based metrics, it’s easy to understand why his goal scoring is down.
At 5v5 this season, Kessel is attempting 2.3 fewer shots per 60 minutes of ice time compared to last season’s 15.16. In fact, since joining the Pens, his 12.86 attempted shots per hour would be his lowest rate (and would be the lowest rate of his career).
A similar thing can be seen when looking at his shots on goal. His 7.72 shots on goal per hour of 5v5 ice time would also be a career low, while he’s converting his shots into goals 9.85% of the time, a slightly lower shooting percentage than he saw last year.
He has, however, created scoring chances at a similar clip to last season (7.78 vs. 7.79) and is creating 2.92 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, 2nd best as a Penguin. Similarly, he’s created nearly a full rebound per hour, just 0.01 fewer than his best as a Penguin (2015-16).
Translation: Kessel is scoring fewer goals because he’s shooting the puck less.
But, what Kessel has done this year, in lieu of scoring goals and shooting the puck, is turned into a provider of goals at 5-on-5 play.
Adjusting for a rate of 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, Kessel is on pace to crush his 5-on-5 assist counts as a Penguin. He’s producing 1.52 total assists per hour of 5v5 play, nearly 1 full primary assist, and 2.28 total points per 60 minutes.
Put another way, Kessel may actually score more 5-on-5 points this season than his 93 point season last year.
Moreover, Kessel currently sits on 26 total assists at 5v5 for the season. Of those, 17 have been primary assists. His career high in total 5v5 assists, accomplished twice (2011-12, 2013-14), is 28. In 2013-14, he posted his career-best 19 primary assists, while putting up 10 secondary assists twice (2011-12, 2016-17).
While Kessel may only be scoring goals at 5v5 at the same rate as he did in 2016-17, he has 8 games remaining to set career highs in primary, secondary, and total assists. He’s only got to get 2, 1, and 2 of those respectively. Betting against him to hit those marks would be incredibly shortsighted.
So, even though Kessel may not be scoring as many goals as you would like him to at 5v5, but he’s setting up goals at a career-best clip.
Moral of the story: It shouldn’t matter who scores, as long as someone scores. And with Phil Kessel, he’s serving up 5-on-5 goals better than he’s done in his career.
That’s what’s important.
All stats herein provided via Natural Stat Trick.