The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - RON COOK

Rick Toc­chet did ter­rific work for the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins the past two sea­sons as one of Mike Sul­li­van’s top two lieu­tenants along with Jac­ques Martin. It never was a ques­tion of if he would get a Na­tional Hockey League head coach­ing job. It was a matter of where and when. Turns out it is the Ari­zona Coy­otes. This is a real loss for the Pen­guins. But it’s the next pos­si­ble big loss for the fran­chise that re­ally is in­trigu­ing to me. Toc­chet’s move is tied to it. I be­lieve Phil Kessel will be traded. It might not hap­pen this week or this month or even this off-sea­son. But I be­lieve it will hap­pen sooner rather than later. Toc­chet’s de­par­ture could has­ten the process. It was clear in June, by the end of the Pen­guins’ sec­ond con­sec­u­tive Stan­ley Cup run, that the or­ga­ni­za­tion wasn’t thrilled with Kessel. He scored 23 goals in 82 games dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, not nearly enough for a player with his mar­vel­lous shoot­ing skills. He had a huge goal — one of the most sig­nif­i­cant of the post-sea­son — to beat Ot­tawa, 1-0, in Game 2 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal, but scored just two more goals in the fi­nal 11 play­off games. Even though he had 23 points in the 25 post-sea­son games, it was hard to find any­one in or­ga­ni­za­tion to say he was play­ing well. My be­lief is Ev­geni Malkin wasn’t thrilled to play on the same line with Kessel. And Sid­ney Crosby? Sul­li­van ac­knowl­edged Crosby and Kessel have no chem­istry to­gether. None. Kessel has to score goals to help the Pen­guins. He doesn’t help the team with his forecheck­ing or his de­fence. He doesn’t play any type of phys­i­cal game, a big rea­son he has been able to play in 610 con­sec­u­tive reg­u­lar-sea­son games, the 11th-long­est streak in NHL his­tory. It’s no se­cret that Kessel of­ten drives Sul­li­van crazy. I’m guess­ing he has pro­duced the same re­ac­tion all the way up the com­pany lad­der, from Jim Ruther­ford to Mario Lemieux. That’s where Toc­chet came in. Just say that he was Kessel’s Whis­perer. Kessel has called him the best as­sis­tant coach he has had. Toc­chet was re­spected by all of the Pen­guins. He was one of the NHL’s best power for­wards, a big part of the Pen­guins’ Cup­win­ning team in 1992 and one of the tough­est ath­letes in any sport. He broke his jaw in a game at Chicago late in that 1992 sea­son and came back to score the win­ning goal in the game. He ended up fight­ing a cou­ple of times soon af­ter be­cause, as he told dis­be­liev­ing coach Scotty Bow­man, “I had to stand up for my guys.” Sul­li­van called Toc­chet “one of the all-time war­riors of the game ... “Not only was he tough in the true sense of the word, he was a guy that could score goals and play with elite play­ers. I think our play­ers have respect for him and what he brings to the ta­ble. He’s such a great hockey mind. I think he’s a stu­dent of the game. He has a good an­a­lyt­i­cal eye. He brings a lot of pas­sion to what he does ... “In par­tic­u­lar, he has a real good re­la­tion­ship with Phil. They spend a lot of time to­gether.” Toc­chet didn’t just help keep Kessel’s head in the game. He served as a buf­fer be­tween Kessel and Sul­li­van. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of that role. An­other rea­son to strongly con­sider a Kessel trade is his out­ra­geous con­tract. He signed an eight-year, $64-mil­lion ex­ten­sion with the Toronto Maple Leafs that kicked in at the start of the 2014-15 sea­son. Even though the Maple Leafs agreed to pick up $1.2 mil­lion of Kessel’s salary each year af­ter they traded him to the Pen­guins in July 2015 in a deal that sent de­fence­man Scott Har­ring­ton, for­wards Kasperi Ka­pa­nen and Nick Spal­ing and a first-round draft pick to Toronto, Kessel counts as a $6.8-mil­lion hit against the Pen­guins’ salary cap through the 2021-22 sea­son, when he will be 35. Kessel also has a lim­ited no-trade clause in his con­tract. Good luck to the Pen­guins try­ing to move him. Good luck to the team con­tin­u­ing to have to deal with him with­out Toc­chet.


Phil Kessel rev­els in the Stan­ley Cup vic­tory pa­rade. Could he be on his way out of Pitts­burgh?

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