For the first time in three years, the Pittsburgh Penguins will not hoist the Stanley Cup. But with an extra long offseason comes some extra distractions. That appears to be the case for the Pens this spring.
According to multiple media outlets, the relationship between Phil Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan is icy at best right now, and The Athletic’s Josh Yohe shed some more light on the issues going on behind the scenes.
Per Yohe, one of the reasons for the friction in the locker room comes from Sullivan’s decision not to play Kessel on the second line with Evgeni Malkin. The 30-year-old spent a good chunk of time with Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard, but the end result wasn’t as positive as it had been over the previous two postseasons.
Kessel averaged 0.92 points-per-game during Pittsburgh’s two Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017. This postseason, he picked up just one goal and eight assists in 12 games. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but it’s well below what we’ve come to expect from the veteran winger.
He has four years remaining on his contract that comes with a cap hit of $6.8 million (the Maple Leafs are eating $1.2 million of the total cap hit). That’s a reasonable salary for a player who put up over 90 points.
It’s important to note that Yohe also mentions that Kessel “is not a problem in the locker room,” so this could be a non-issue once training camp kicks off. Still, the fact that one of the best players on the team and the head coach aren’t getting along is less than ideal.
The worst thing the Penguins can do in this situation is overreact. This is the first time in a while that they’ll have an extended summer so these type distractions were bound to happen. Kessel still managed to put up 34 goals and 92 points in 82 games during the regular season. That’s the highest point total of his career. It probably won’t get much better for him in that regard, but that doesn’t mean GM Jim Rutherford has to look to unload him this summer.
At the same time, Rutherford has been around the NHL long enough to know that this isn’t a situation that calls for an impulse decision. The Pens have been one of the model franchises in the league for well over a decade, which means this situation is unlikely to escalate enough to force anyone out of town.