It’s tough to put a finger on exactly what the knock on Phil Kessel in Toronto was; it seemed to morph to fit whatever the Leafs’ deficiency was that week. Sometimes it was that he wasn’t a winner, sometimes he had a bad attitude. He wasn’t in shape, he didn’t make his teammates better, he wasn’t motivated. He ate a lot of hot dogs. Maybe, just maybe, the problem with Phil Kessel was that he was stuck on a shitty team.
The Conn Smythe argument is a tough one. Matt Murray came out of nowhere to backstop the Penguins to a title. Kris Letang played monster minutes against the toughest matchups and performed. Sidney Crosby, who got the MVP nod, constantly drove possession despite opponents throwing their best against him. But Kessel never stopped producing, leading Pittsburgh in goals and points this postseason, and coming a close third in assists. (Lambert’s got the Kessel argument, and it’s compelling.)
But individual trophies don’t really matter. Can’t win? Phil, our Phil, our big, sweet boy, got to lift the Stanley Cup (“it was way heavier than I thought it was going to be”) and will have his name forever inscribed upon it, and everyone will remember the role he played in getting the Penguins there.
Doesn’t make his teammates better? Since March there has been no line better than that of Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin, the perfect combination of speed and smarts and scoring and even two-way play. Pittsburgh’s HBK Line, freed from the pressure and matchups of a top line, proved to be the Penguins’ best weapon.
Surly? Give us all a big hug, Phil.
In Toronto, Kessel was asked to do too much with too little, made too much money to be the best player on a bad team without feeling the wrath of the particularly harsh local media, and to a lesser extent impatient fans who needed someone to blame. He is, functionally, not that a different player in Pittsburgh: He is still big and fast and has one of the best shots in the game. But has certainly benefited from teammates who will pick up the slack, and because he’s a human being, he’s giving full effort when there’s something worth trying for. Everyone knew that getting him out of Toronto was the best thing for all involved. No one could have seen his vindication coming so quickly.
“I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?” said Kessel, beaming, with a glint of emotion in his eyes. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s special. A year ago you don’t think of this.”
So that’s that: Pittsburgh made Phil Kessel better, and Kessel made the Penguins better. The only question that remains is what he will do when he gets the Stanley Cup for a day. Throw himself a one-man parade through the streets of Toronto? See how many delicious street hot dogs will fit in its bowl? Cuddle with it? Whatever he wants to do, it’s his; he’s a winner.