Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Crosby’s line or Malkin’s? Kessel happy with either

- By Jenn Menendez

Penguins coach Mike Johnston declined to offer his gut feeling for where exactly Phil Kessel will fit into his lineup, leaving the debate that begs “Crosby or Malkin?” to rage until September.

Kessel said Thursday he had no preference, but is thrilled to join the Penguins organizati­on and two of the game’s best players.

“Ha! Um, no. They’re both two of the best players in the game, if not the top two players in the game,” said Kessel, reached while on a family vacation. “Whichever I play with, they’re great players. I’m real excited. This is a great opportunit­y.”

Either way, Kessel’s addition means the Penguins scoring should be more prolific. They also will be a whole lot quicker because of Kessel, whose blistering release

(wrist or slap shot), speed and quickness makes him an elite sniper.

“One, it’s the speed that he plays with. It’s a fast game now and it’s dangerous if you can have speed in your lineup both in transition and on the attack,” Johnston said. “Secondly he’s a proven scorer. You know how tight the playoffs were, the regular season. There’s a very fine line between teams that win and teams that don’t. That extra goal can be a difference.”

Kessel sounded upbeat and said he looks forward to playing for a team that appears to be putting all its chips on the table. Kessel reached the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in the past six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and just three times in his career.

“It’s a great opportunit­y for me,” he said. “I mean it’s an awesome opportunit­y. We’ve got a great team there.”

Johnston, who spoke with Kessel by phone Thursday, said that, although he was quite familiar with Kessel’s game, he would take the next week to watch tape and analyze him more deeply. That analysis will help determine which line — or, more important, which center — will be most suitable for his new right winger.

“I’m not sure yet,” Johnston said. “What I’m going to do over the next week is watch a few more games of his and just sort of see his overall game and see who we think he may be a fit with. The good thing is we’ve got lots of options for our top three centers.”

Kessel, who scored 181 goals in six years with Toronto, produced just 25 last year, his lowest total in a full season since his second year in Boston (19 in 2006-07). He scored 20 goals in 2012-13 for Toronto, but played just 48 games that year.

He said he will judge his own performanc­e in another way. “Just if we win, right?” Kessel said. “I don’t care if I score or anything like that, as long as I can help the team win in any way possible. That’s the most important thing.”

With the glare of the Toronto spotlight behind him, the Penguins believe Kessel can thrive in Pittsburgh where he does not have to be “the guy” in the room.

Johnston said he has no concerns about how Kessel will fit into an already starstudde­d locker room, and mentioned how the return of the affable Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta will help all the new players.

“It’s hard to tell with any player how they’re going to fit into your locker room,” Johnston said. “The one thing I know about our locker room is we have great character guys. … The new players, Phil being one of them, those guys will get to know our players. A lot of fitting in is getting to know each other. It takes time for guys. From what I understand, he’s a great teammate. I don’t forsee any issues because I like our group.”

Kessel confirmed plans to work out with former Penguins winger Gary Roberts this offseason. Roberts runs a training center in Toronto and was tabbed earlier this year to run the Sports Performanc­e Center at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

“We’ve been in contact throughout the summer a little bit, and I’m going to get ready to go here,” Kessel said. “It should be a good summer. I’ll be ready to go when the season starts.”

 ??  ?? Penguins coach Mike Johnston hasn’t said where newly acquired forward Phil Kessel will play, and that’s OK with Kessel.
Penguins coach Mike Johnston hasn’t said where newly acquired forward Phil Kessel will play, and that’s OK with Kessel.

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