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Phil Kessel situation is getting a little weird in Pittsburgh

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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.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Phil Kessel doesn’t really care about scoring title: ‘I have two Cups’

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A couple of weeks ago we looked at the possibility of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel potentially winning the NHL scoring title this season.

Since then Nikita Kucherov has kind of distanced himself a little bit in the race and has re-opened an eight-point lead over the rest of the pack, as well as a 10-point lead over Kessel.

On Friday, Kessel was asked about winning the scoring title and if he’s following the race between his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, and Claude Giroux.

He gave a pretty honest — and awesome — answer.

“I got two Cups,” said Kessel, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Doesn’t really matter.”

That pretty much settles that, doesn’t it?

[Related: Phil Kessel Joins Exclusive Hot Dog Hockey Card Club, Thanks To Upper Deck]

As of Friday Kessel is tied with Crosby, Malkin, McDavid and Giroux, all of whom have 66 points.

Stamkos is third in the league with 67 points, one point back of Gaudreau with 68 points.

All of them are chasing Kucherov’s 76 points.

The scoring title wasn’t the only thing that prompted Kessel to reference the Penguins’ past two Stanley Cup wins. With the team that traded him to Pittsburgh — the Toronto Maple Leafs — in town for a game on Saturday night Kessel was asked if he still gets fired up to face his former team, to which he responded (via @PensInsideScoop): “I don’t really care anymore. It’s my third year and we’ve won twice. It’s in the past.”

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Phil Kessel joins exclusive hot dog hockey card club, thanks to Upper Deck (Photo)

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Upper Deck released its Series 2 set of hockey cards this week and included is a insert set featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and their days with the Stanley Cup from this past summer. Among the 12 cards, which includes Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, is a very unique photo for the card of Phil Kessel, two-time Stanley Cup champion.

In August, when it was Kessel’s day, he spent part of it at a golf course with friends and family, which included him posing with hot dogs inside the Cup’s bowl. You might recall a silly and later debunked story from the Toronto Sun in 2015 that said Kessel would grab a daily dog from a certain vendor near his condo in the city. It even inspired a tattoo!

Clearly, Phil got wind of the story and decided to dunk on Steve Simmons, to the delight of many.

Kessel now has something in common with long-time NHL netminder Olaf Kolzig, who was captured on a 1995-96 Pinnacle card about to down a hot dog with his name spelled out in mustard.

Kolzig told the Washington Post in 1996 that he never did eat that hot dog and the idea came about when he asked card photographers what’s the weirdest hockey card they ever made. Then “the guy handed me a hot dog with my name written in mustard on it.”

We relish the thought that this could start a trend in the hobby.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Let’s talk about Phil Kessel potentially winning the scoring title

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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.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Video: This Ryan Reaves prank scared the you-know-what out of Phil Kessel

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If he wasn’t before, Phil Kessel may now have a fear of clowns after a frighteningly funny prank courtesy teammate Ryan Reaves.

Reaves posted the video to his personal Twitter account on Friday, one day before the Penguins take on the Wild to start a five-game road trip.

We’ve seen over the years pranks between teammates while on the road. But this . . . I mean, the look on Kessel’s face as he opened the door to the hotel room . . .

The Penguins acquired Reaves from the St. Louis Blues ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft. Known for his size and toughness, he has appeared in 11 games for his new team, scoring once with two points and 47 penalty minutes.

It certainly didn’t take long for him to become a fan favourite in Pittsburgh, but this prank may take that popularity to new heights.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.