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Let’s Talk About Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel has blended in and made himself a legend in Pittsburgh Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Phil Kessel has blended in and made himself a legend in Pittsburgh
Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP

Phil Kessel is…
A Pittsburgh Penguin.
A Stanley Cup Champion.
An enigma.

Phil Kessel has friends. He also seems to have an awful lot of enemies if the way he gets dragged constantly is anything to go by. I get it, he doesn’t like the media so the media says mean things. Sometimes he snaps and of course the writers who he snaps at don’t like him.

He doesn’t exactly look like he’s as fast or as talented as he is. But he’s one of the fastest skaters in the NHL whether he looks like it or not. He’s also played ten seasons in the NHL, scoring 20 goals eight times and 19 in another. So clearly, judging a book by its cover is still not a good idea.

Teammates from Toronto seemed to genuinely like the guy. And they give off the distinct vibe they still miss him there, despite whatever the prevailing narrative of the week is. But still, there seems to be something special about Phil. Something I don’t think anyone predicted when he was traded to Pittsburgh – he fits right in. I don’t think anyone, not even Phil himself, could’ve imagined how comfortably he’s fit in with Pittsburgh on and off the ice. Because, somehow, a city that’s built its sports culture on good guys and ‘aw shucks’ personas like Sidney Crosby, Andrew McCutchen and Hines Ward has become the champion of Phil Kessel, heel extraordinaire.

And when I say champion, I mean it. Phil Kessel quickly ascended the ranks to be one of the top three jerseys sold by the team. If you walked down any given street last spring during the run to the Stanley Cup, you’d see people decked out in 81 second only to 87 and perhaps even more than 71.

Phil is a point-per-game player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was the cornerstone of the HBK line that swept through the playoffs like a plague leaving defenses and goalies looking dumbfounded. Sure, he’s not the most interesting quote, but neither is Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Now, I won’t pretend he didn’t get his share of criticism his first year. When he wasn’t putting up 40 goals the media did begin to roast him a bit. The fans though, by and large, seemed to be okay with it. Then he caught fire in the spring with the rest of the squad and just like Sidney Crosby, his early “struggles” never happened.

Then we remember that he did this, all of his playoff success that got him serious talk for the Conn Smythe, with an injured hand. The injury he had off-season surgery on has yet to have a pin-pointed occurrence date, but it was something he played through for quite sometime. And he still put up a point per game!

Yeah, no wonder the city seems to like him. Phil Kessel might not be loved in Boston because they wanted to low-ball him. He might be misunderstood in Toronto where he was tasked with too much and given too little. But here, in Pittsburgh, he’s found a home on a team where he’s playing a role that he’s comfortable in and he’s being pushed by his captain just the right amount. He’s a Stanley Cup Champion, and he’s definitely a Pittsburgher now. Whether he reaches thirty goals or not this season, I can’t say but I do predict a great year for the Penguins winger. I do expect him to improve on last season even if it takes him a little bit due to coming off of his surgery.

And the HBK line? Well, I’m not sure they stay together long term, because part of what was so special about them was how organic it was and I don’t expect Sullivan to keep them together if they’re not producing. But I do know Phil has finally settled in here in Pittsburgh and that he, his dog and his equally famous professional hockey playing sister are welcome here any time.

Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.