The Pittsburgh Penguins Should Consider a Phil Kessel Trade

With the NHL trade deadline only a few days out, every NHL team should be considering anything and everything that might make them better. Although it may sound crazy, the Pittsburgh Penguins should be thinking about a Phil Kessel trade.

Why a Phil Kessel Trade Makes Sense

On the surface, Phil Kessel is having a career year. He’s spent most of the season in the Art Ross trophy race and currently has 66 points in 61 games. Furthermore, there was a fair argument he’s the Penguins MVP this season. So why in the world would a Stanley Cup favourite even consider a Phil Kessel trade? Well, his results aren’t as good as one might expect, especially for his cap hit. His even strength points are where it all begins. And the stats may be underwhelming.

Kessel at Even Strength

One could probably assume Kessel is one of the most efficient point producers in the NHL. One look down at his results, however, and it’s obvious that is not the case.

Data From Corsica

Kessel’s scoring rates are good, but not great. He scored well into the first line range his first two seasons with the Penguins. This season, in what most consider his career year, his scoring at even strength has dipped just above first line territory. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t for his salary. The Penguins have Kessel at a $6,800,000 cap hit, the 30th highest among NHL forwards.

Comparing his actual production to what his salary might indicate, Kessel has yet to live up to expectations. His scoring not living up to his name or contract is one reason a Phil Kessel trade is worth considering. Now there is more to hockey than points. More of his 5v5 results tell the story.

Going Beyond Points Gets Worse

There are plenty of players who prove their worth beyond the score sheet. This is usually done by driving shots and scoring chances, so their team still outscores the opposition when they aren’t picking up points. Looking down to Kessel’s numbers, he is clearly not one of those players.

Data From Corsica

First up there’s Kessel’s ability to drive his teams Corsi for Percentage. This is the percentage of shots in his team’s favour. The top graph shows a troubling trend. The blue bar shows what percentage of shots the Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs (Kessel’s former team) have controlled with Kessel on the ice. The orange bar shows the teams percentage with Kessel off the ice. For a star player, he has struggled to drive even-strength results. Three of the past four seasons his team has actually controlled a higher percentage of shots with Kessel on the bench rather than the ice.

Driving results can be tough when Sidney Crosby is the one stepping over the boards after you, which is why Kessel’s final year as a Leaf is included to show this is not a new trend. When looking at expected goals instead of Corsi, the results are similar.

Expected goals for percentage is just like Corsi, except each shot is weighted for how dangerous it is. When shots are adjusted for quality, Kessel struggles even more. Each of the past four seasons his team has been better with him watching rather than playing. He is not losing the shot battle but making up for it in scoring chances. He is actually losing both. His points are good but nothing special, and his team controls more shots and chances without him. There is no evidence which shows Kessel is worth his money at even strength. When looking at the context of his minutes, it only gets worse.

Kessel and Malkin Don’t Work

Occasionally, a player’s bad results are driven by circumstances rather than play. It can be from playing with linemates who don’t fit their style. Who does Kessel usually play with? His primary linemate this season has been Evgeni Malkin. The numbers indicate how different they are together and apart.

Data From Corsica

This data shows three scenarios. First is Malkin on the ice without Kessel. Then it shows them together. Lastly, there’s Kessel without Malkin. The first section where Malkin is on his own has the best results. He controls 52% of the shots (blue bar), 53.5% of the goals (orange bar) and 53.33% of the scoring chances (red bar).

When Kessel joins him, everything drops. The shots fall a little while the goals and scoring chances plummet. And when Kessel is on his own, everything falls below 50%. A $6,800,000 million dollar player who cannot break even without an elite centerman is a huge problem.

To make matters worse, it appears Kessel is actually dragging Malkin down.  Underwhelming point production while getting outshot and out-chanced should cause some concern, but doing it while being propped up by a top five centerman should raise an alarm. This makes the evidence above even more damning and shows Kessel is easily replaceable at even strength.

Kessel does have one elite skill left and it works out perfectly for the Penguins in the possibility of a Phil Kessel trade.

Where Kessel Dominates

While a lot of how Kessel performs is underwhelming, he does have some impressive talent. It would be unfair not to mention how dominant he is on the powerplay. His 32 points on the man advantage puts him atop the NHL this year, and he’s 12th most efficient powerplay scorer of the past three seasons. As a result, his point totals are higher than his actual net value.

Points are typically used as the primary way to judge players value, making this the perfect window to sell as high as possible in a Phil Kessel trade. He is over a point per game right now because of his power-play prowess, so one of the teams rumored to be in the market for wingers might just think he is the piece that pushes them over the edge. The power-play would miss him a lot, but a unit lead by Crosby and Malkin would probably be fine.

Altogether Phil Kessel is a deceiving player. At five on five, it’s hard to justify his name value or salary. But on the power play, Kessel shines inflating his value. Teams have overpaid for power play production in the past, so the Penguins should keep an eye out for a desperate team willing to do so again. If so the Penguins could use the cap flexibility plus the massive return he would command to make their team better today and for the future. Thus making a Phil Kessel trade something they should explore.

(All data thanks to Corsica unless indicated otherwise)

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