KESSEL MAY BE ON MOVE,
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?