Can Phil Kessel break 40 goals with Pittsburgh Penguins?

Can Phil Kessel break 40 goals with Pittsburgh Penguins?

There’s an expectation that Phil Kessel is going to reach new and exciting offensive heights with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His career best numbers were achieved in 2011-12: 37 goals and 45 assists for 82 points in 82 games. (Although he had a higher points-per-game average of 1.08 in 2012-13 and a higher goals per game average in 2008-09 with the Bruins, 0.51.)

There’s also an expectation that Phil Kessel might not immediately find his fit with the Penguins. Coach Mike Johnston will start him with Sidney Crosby in camp, but no one would be surprised if he settled in as Evgeni Malkin’s triggerman like James Neal was before he was traded to the Nashville Predators.

Then there’s the expectation that Steven Burtch of Sportsnet has for Kessel, which is that his game will be elevated by either Sid or Geno, because that’s what they do for wingers, but that breaking 40 goals might still be a challenge despite the upgrade in talent around him.

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From Burtch, the good news for Phil:

Whatever the reasoning, we can assume Kessel's personal share of shots and the proportion that are scoring chances will remain fairly stable, but his shooting percentage may increase slightly due to improved offensive possession. Assuming good health for all Kessel, Crosby and Malkin, the slight improvement in shooting percentage coupled with the likely increase in scoring-chance opportunities means we can project Kessel's production at 20 to 23 even-strength goals. That would represent a significant rebound from the 14 he scored last season and a return to the form that saw him post 20-plus in 2008-09, '09-10, '11-12 and '13-14.


Kessel will have the luxury of skating with superior linemates in Pittsburgh, but he isn't likely to get more ice time than he saw in Toronto, and he isn't necessarily going to turn into a 15-percent shooter because he's firing home passes off the sticks of Crosby and Malkin. In the end, it makes sense to assume that whatever improvements in production rate Kessel sees will be slightly offset by the fact that he isn't likely to regularly see 20-plus minutes of ice with the Penguins.


Let’s assume his even-strength scoring hits the high end of 23 goals, as Burtch projects. Which means he’ll need another 17 goal from special teams to hit 40.

Unless something changes in the way Johnston sees Kessel’s usage, he’s not playing shorthanded. At least he didn’t over the last three seasons in Toronto.

Let’s now assume that all special teams are cyclical, and the Penguins’ power play is healthy and wealthy and back at around 23 percent instead of last season’s downtick. We saw Neal hit 18 power-play goals with the Penguins in 2011-12. When Chris Kunitz popped in 35 goals in 2013-14, 13 of them came on the power play.

What can Kessel do with that power play?


Give Burtch’s piece a read, as it goes in-depth on what numbers will improve for Kessel with the Penguins and which stats are a flatline. But I’ve come away thinking that the Pittsburgh power play, and Kessel’s effectiveness on it, is going to determine if he breaks 40.

His previous career best? Twelve power-play goals in 2010-11. But that was the Toronto Maple Leafs, not riding shotgun with Sid and Geno.