For the longest time this season it looked like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov was just going to run away with the NHL’s scoring title.
Suddenly, though, he has some real competition starting to breath down his neck, and it is a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
No. It is not Sidney Crosby, and it is not Evgeni Malkin, either.
It is Phil Kessel.
After his three-point game on Friday night Kessel enters play on Saturday just two points back of Kucherov for the top spot.
Working against him in his quest to win the Art Ross is the fact Kucherov still has two additional games to play the rest of the way and is still averaging more points per game. That is going to make it a tough deficit to overcome, because even though the gap now is only two points, Kucherov is still on pace for 102 points this season while Kessel is on a 96-point point pace.
But working in his favor, aside from the fact that Kucherov’s pace has slowed, even if only slightly as the season has progressed, is that Kessel is playing on a Penguins team that is starting to figure things out and has a power play unit that is currently ripping apart the NHL. That power play unit has the top-three power play point producers in the league (Kessel, Crosby, Malkin) with Kessel leading the way. His 33 power play points are already just two shy of the league leading total (35 for Nicklas Backstrom) a season ago.
If he manages to pull it off — and even if ends up finishing in the top-two or three — it would be another somewhat hilarious development in the second half of his career.
Just look at the player Kessel was thought to be before he arrived in Pittsburgh by a pretty significant portion of the hockey world.
For years he was stuck as the best player on a bad team (in Toronto, of all places, the worst possible city for that to be the case) and was pretty much run out of town while having his reputation sullied on the way out the door.
Even before that critics always spent more time focussing on what he didn’t do as a player instead of what he does do. Colby Armstrong, his former teammate, once said the words “But when the game’s on the line, if he can get a goal for you, that’s about all he’s gonna do.”
One of his former coaches, Ron Wilson, once said “you can’t rely on Phil.”
A couple of years later it turns out that getting goals when the game is on the line is a pretty important skill, and that yes, you can, in fact, rely on Phil.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh Kessel has not only been a focal point of two Stanley Cup winning teams, he was the leading postseason scorer on one of them and should have won (let’s not even say probably — let’s just be honest, he should have won) the Conn Smythe Trophy.
During those two Stanley Cup ones only Crosby and Malkin had more points over the two-year stretch (they each have 46 points; Kessel has 45) while nobody has scored more goals.
Even after accomplishing all of that he was still undervalued as a player (Team USA did not think enough of him to include him on its World Cup roster) while he entered this season still facing bizarre criticism.
It had been well documented that Kessel had developed a great relationship with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
Once Tocchet left this summer to take over the Arizona Coyotes there was real concern as to how Kessel would perform, and if you believe one preseason column in the Post-Gazette, if the Penguins would even want him around.
That storyline has not aged particularly well.
Kessel is not only one of the league’s top-two scorers at this point and having what is the best offensive season of his career, he has been the Penguins’ most consistent player and arguably their team MVP. He may not be the focal point of the roster, he may not be the biggest superstar on the team, and he may not be the locker stall the media crowds around first after a game, but you can’t make the argument that Kessel hasn’t been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Penguins since arriving in Pittsburgh.
He has been doing even more this season, and even though it almost certainly will not result in him getting an MVP award — whether it be league or team — he may still end up adding another trophy to his collection. One that nobody has to vote on.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.