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The Phil Kessel trade was, in many ways, an eventuality. The Maple Leafs only had to find a team with the cap space — or in this case, cap space facilitated through salary retention — and will to take on a guy who had come to be perceived as a “problem” in Toronto.
Of course, Kessel wasn't actually a problem, because he was in fact one of the few bright spots for what was a miserable team for his entire run in Toronto. No one wants to paint it that way because he was in some ways discourteous to the local media (i.e. he didn't put up with their BS), and he was a highly paid, high-skill player on a team that was mired in garbage water before he got there and will continue to be for at least a few more years.
Those who want to run down Kessel will point to the losing, which is more or less beyond his control, because they cannot in any way denigrate the numbers or the durability. From 2009-present, he has missed exactly 12 games, and none since 2010-11 began. The 181 goals he scored in 446 games for the Leafs is fifth in the league over those six seasons. The 213 assists is eighth.
He is, in fact, one of just 10 players league-wide to clear 150 goals and 200 assists in the last six seasons, and the other nine are guys everyone in the Toronto media would have run over a family member to see the Leafs acquire: Martin St. Louis, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Jamie Benn and Corey Perry.
And while the Toronto media is obviously loath to get into the “fancy” stats (or as they are known, counting numbers with some division mixed in), over that time Kessel is also tied for fifth in terms of goals per 60 minutes, tied for 16th in assists per 60, and tied for eighth in points per 60. You really can't ask for more than that from a player. The company is more than elite. We're talking about basically a top-10 forward by just about any measure.
This is and always was an elite forward we're talking about here, and Toronto has traded him for peanuts. Well, they traded him for the purpose of not paying Phil Kessel more than 15 percent of his salary for the next several years, because the team is rebuilding and they could get pieces for him. This is probably not the case with Dion Phaneuf, who seems more untradeable than Kessel was ever going to be. Kessel is at least an elite talent. Phaneuf is a borderline No. 1/2 defenseman, not that there's anything wrong with that.
And, as long as we're being honest about Kessel's time in Toronto, let's also include the fact that he — in part because of his own preferences — had to lug a heavy weight up and down the ice almost every shift in the form of his best friend in the whole wide world. Tyler Bozak is not a No. 1 center in the NHL. He's not as bad as everyone makes him out to be (and he's certainly overpaid), but he's also not the kind of guy that should be feeding pucks to high-quality wingers like Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Now, again, this is Kessel's best friend and Kessel felt comfortable with him on the ice, so who was Randy Carlyle or any other coach to break them up as long as Kessel kept filling the net with goals (which, you'll remember from above, he certainly did).
But how much of a hindrance was Bozak? A pretty big one, as it turns out.
While it doesn't seem like this should be the case, Kessel has played less than 400 minutes fewer without Bozak than with, so the more than 4,000 total in each category gives us a pretty good basis for comparison. As you might imagine, playing with Bozak drags down Kessel's goalscoring rates, increases his goals-allowing rates, and does the same for shot attempt numbers. None of this is going to come as a surprise, of course, but here we are. Interestingly, Bozak also drags down Kessel's on-ice shooting percentage.
And you say, “Okay, sure, but we know Bozak's a bad No. 1 center, so anyone you replace him with is going to help Kessel's numbers.” That's true. The only other centers with whom Kessel has played at least 500 minutes are Marc Savard and Nazem Kadri, and while a Kessel/Savard grouping predictably dominated opponents (53.7 CF%, 63.7 GF%), Kessel/Kadri outperformed the goalscoring (50 percent) but not the possession (46.6 percent). So we're not exactly dealing with a murderer's row of supporting characters here. It's two guys, one of whom was flat-out great before the whole Matt Cooke thing, and one of whom hasn't been but is also 24 years old.
All of which brings us to the trade to Pittsburgh, where Kessel will be paired with an elite center for the first time since the Boston trade. While it's unclear whether he's going to get time with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, one can reasonably assume that it doesn't really matter; the difference between Bozak and either one on their worst days is going to be massive.
The question, though, is how massive? Because even with Toronto eating 15 percent of Kessel's salary, that's still another big freight to carry on a team that has a lot of big freights to begin with.
Certainly, Kessel represents an upgrade over the Chris Kunitzes and Pascal Dupuiseses of the world, but the question of “how much of an upgrade makes the trade worth it” certainly comes into play. Here again, though, we can assume that it is massive.
As with Kessel, we have thousands of minutes worth of data about what Crosby and Malkin do on the ice, and we take it as a given that they're going to be dominant. We take this as a given despite the fact that we can also acknowledge they're basically never given really good weapons to use alongside them. This is a fault of Ray Shero's, to no small extent, and Rutherford clearly hopes is fixing that with the Kessel trade, at least in the short term.
So we take what we know about Malkin and Crosby, and compare that with what they all did, collectively, over the course of their entire careers outside of playing with two of the best centers of the last two decades. The results are not pretty.
Basically what that says is that Penguins forwards will generally get huge improvements in their possession numbers and goalscoring rates with both Crosby and Malkin (but obviously Crosby more so because Crosby is the best player alive).
You'll note, by the way, that logically the numbers “without” Crosby and Malkin also include Malkin and Crosby, respectively, playing apart. These two players have played together for a substantial amount of time in their careers —almost 1,300 minutes a 5-on-5, during which they leveled the competition to the tune of 55.5 percent possession and 62 percent of the goalscoring — but the majority of their time is spent on two separate lines. So the fact is that, if you consider we're counting thousands of minutes each of Crosby and Malkin separate from each other in the “without” categories, the quality of player with whom Malkin and Crosby are generally burdened is actually even lower than these numbers suggest.
So great is their influence on the lesser players around them, in fact, they basically make anyone look like an All-Star (see above) no matter how bad they are. For instance, Crosby increases his linemates' career goals-for per 60 by more than 68 percent. Malkin does so by nearly 47 percent. They also suffer smaller increases to goals-against numbers, but that, I think, can often be chalked up to the fact that they're playing a level of competition to which they are usually unaccustomed. The influence Malkin and Crosby have on possession is smaller, but similar.
Which brings us back to Kessel, who again, pays a penalty for his loyalty to Bozak. Goals-for goes down, goals-against up considerably. And, here too, there are similar but muted swings in shot attempt numbers.
Now, all of this is to say that the improvements Kessel sees with either Crosby or Malkin are likely to be a little smaller than the average. These numbers include many downright awful players that got the chance to play with some of the game's greats for a handful of shifts (or fewer) before returning to the mines and hacking away a few hundred more minutes before they were shuffled out of the league forever.
It seems reasonable to expect a significant increase in Kessel's production playing alongside either Crosby or Malkin (I don't see how you don't get him the most minutes possible, though), and we can at least guess at what those rates would look like using the above data. Here we'll use the conservative data and encompass all of what Kessel has done in his career, regardless of centers, to see what Kessel might look like getting the Crosby/Malkin Bump rather than paying the Bozak Tax.
(This is, obviously, assuming he sticks to similar jumps experienced by all other players, on average.)
These numbers might seem high (because, well, they are very, very high). “No one scores 4.65 goals per 60,” and so on. That's true. Mostly. But those numbers compare pretty closely with the numbers when two of the best centers in the world are playing with other elite players, like Kris Letang, Malkin or Crosby. Hell, Crosby breaks 4 goals-for per 60 minutes — an extremely high number — when Paul Martin or Matt Niskanen is on the ice with him, so these numbers are within reach.
And let's remind again: Kessel is just the sort of elite talent that neither Crosby nor Malkin have ever had long-term.
If Crosby can drag Chris Kunitz onto the Canadian Olympic team, he might just win Kessel a Rocket Richard, and he might do it walking away.
Because if those Crosby numbers hold up over the course of an entire year, based on Kessel's average ice time per 82-game season (about 1236.5 minutes at 5-on-5), he's going to be on the ice for 95 goals-for at evens alone. The most 5v5 goals-for for which anyone since 2007 has been on ice is Henrik Sedin's 90 in 2009-10. Only two other guys even break 80. With Malkin, Kessel would tie for second at 83, with Nicklas Backstrom (also in 2009-10).
Those are some lofty expectations, but we've probably also never seen this blend of playmaking capabilities and elite finish on one line before. The Penguins basically can't lose here, so if you're going to mortgage the future for a years-long rental, they're at least making this one count.
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