The Pittsburgh Penguins Should Consider a Phil Kessel Trade

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 3: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins passes during an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on February 3, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

With the NHL trade deadline only a few days out, every NHL team should be considering anything and everything that might make them better. Although it may sound crazy, the Pittsburgh Penguins should be thinking about a Phil Kessel trade.

Why a Phil Kessel Trade Makes Sense

On the surface, Phil Kessel is having a career year. He’s spent most of the season in the Art Ross trophy race and currently has 66 points in 61 games. Furthermore, there was a fair argument he’s the Penguins MVP this season. So why in the world would a Stanley Cup favourite even consider a Phil Kessel trade? Well, his results aren’t as good as one might expect, especially for his cap hit. His even strength points are where it all begins. And the stats may be underwhelming.

Kessel at Even Strength

One could probably assume Kessel is one of the most efficient point producers in the NHL. One look down at his results, however, and it’s obvious that is not the case.

Data From Corsica

Kessel’s scoring rates are good, but not great. He scored well into the first line range his first two seasons with the Penguins. This season, in what most consider his career year, his scoring at even strength has dipped just above first line territory. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t for his salary. The Penguins have Kessel at a $6,800,000 cap hit, the 30th highest among NHL forwards.

Comparing his actual production to what his salary might indicate, Kessel has yet to live up to expectations. His scoring not living up to his name or contract is one reason a Phil Kessel trade is worth considering. Now there is more to hockey than points. More of his 5v5 results tell the story.

Going Beyond Points Gets Worse

There are plenty of players who prove their worth beyond the score sheet. This is usually done by driving shots and scoring chances, so their team still outscores the opposition when they aren’t picking up points. Looking down to Kessel’s numbers, he is clearly not one of those players.

Data From Corsica

First up there’s Kessel’s ability to drive his teams Corsi for Percentage. This is the percentage of shots in his team’s favour. The top graph shows a troubling trend. The blue bar shows what percentage of shots the Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs (Kessel’s former team) have controlled with Kessel on the ice. The orange bar shows the teams percentage with Kessel off the ice. For a star player, he has struggled to drive even-strength results. Three of the past four seasons his team has actually controlled a higher percentage of shots with Kessel on the bench rather than the ice.

Driving results can be tough when Sidney Crosby is the one stepping over the boards after you, which is why Kessel’s final year as a Leaf is included to show this is not a new trend. When looking at expected goals instead of Corsi, the results are similar.

Expected goals for percentage is just like Corsi, except each shot is weighted for how dangerous it is. When shots are adjusted for quality, Kessel struggles even more. Each of the past four seasons his team has been better with him watching rather than playing. He is not losing the shot battle but making up for it in scoring chances. He is actually losing both. His points are good but nothing special, and his team controls more shots and chances without him. There is no evidence which shows Kessel is worth his money at even strength. When looking at the context of his minutes, it only gets worse.

Kessel and Malkin Don’t Work

Occasionally, a player’s bad results are driven by circumstances rather than play. It can be from playing with linemates who don’t fit their style. Who does Kessel usually play with? His primary linemate this season has been Evgeni Malkin. The numbers indicate how different they are together and apart.

Data From Corsica

This data shows three scenarios. First is Malkin on the ice without Kessel. Then it shows them together. Lastly, there’s Kessel without Malkin. The first section where Malkin is on his own has the best results. He controls 52% of the shots (blue bar), 53.5% of the goals (orange bar) and 53.33% of the scoring chances (red bar).

When Kessel joins him, everything drops. The shots fall a little while the goals and scoring chances plummet. And when Kessel is on his own, everything falls below 50%. A $6,800,000 million dollar player who cannot break even without an elite centerman is a huge problem.

To make matters worse, it appears Kessel is actually dragging Malkin down.  Underwhelming point production while getting outshot and out-chanced should cause some concern, but doing it while being propped up by a top five centerman should raise an alarm. This makes the evidence above even more damning and shows Kessel is easily replaceable at even strength.

Kessel does have one elite skill left and it works out perfectly for the Penguins in the possibility of a Phil Kessel trade.

Where Kessel Dominates

While a lot of how Kessel performs is underwhelming, he does have some impressive talent. It would be unfair not to mention how dominant he is on the powerplay. His 32 points on the man advantage puts him atop the NHL this year, and he’s 12th most efficient powerplay scorer of the past three seasons. As a result, his point totals are higher than his actual net value.

Points are typically used as the primary way to judge players value, making this the perfect window to sell as high as possible in a Phil Kessel trade. He is over a point per game right now because of his power-play prowess, so one of the teams rumored to be in the market for wingers might just think he is the piece that pushes them over the edge. The power-play would miss him a lot, but a unit lead by Crosby and Malkin would probably be fine.

Altogether Phil Kessel is a deceiving player. At five on five, it’s hard to justify his name value or salary. But on the power play, Kessel shines inflating his value. Teams have overpaid for power play production in the past, so the Penguins should keep an eye out for a desperate team willing to do so again. If so the Penguins could use the cap flexibility plus the massive return he would command to make their team better today and for the future. Thus making a Phil Kessel trade something they should explore.

(All data thanks to Corsica unless indicated otherwise)

Main Photo
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  1. Hi hater. obv this guy doesn’t care too much for Pens lol. Most humble opinion: should indeed be last words on hockey author writes…ever. Not very bright, to put it nicely…

  2. Your data is flawed. You chose a select number of instances that support your argument but you’re only showing correlations. Any Stats 101 student will tell you that correlation does not imply causation. A Billy Beane approach doesnt work here. There are too many outlying factors that contribute to Kessel’s, and as a result, Pittsburgh’s success or lack there of each season.

    Even if the data does prove your point, you cant just assume the results to mean one single thing. For instance, Malkin on ice with Kessel might drag down their overall performace, but that doesn’t mean Kessel’s, as you would claim, “poor performance” is the contributing factor. Explore the possibility that their chemistry doesn’t work (being two elite players with vet experience), and then suggest that instead of a trade, Pens explore cementing his position on a 3rd line.

    There’s more but Ive spent too much time here.
    Dont fill people’s heads with flawed information…

    • Correlation is on a scatter plot with 2 separate variables and a line of best fit between and an R squared indicating how much of the variance in one explains the other, this type of analysis was not included here so I’m not sure what you are referring to. Also yes there are confounding variables but after 4 straight years of being outshot and outchanced and his team being better with him off the ice should cause concern. Also if anything those confounding variables make it worse because he plays with elite teammates.

      • I don’t think you completely understand Stats, as you clearly regurgitated a textbook definition of a correlation graph, which is not at all to what I was referring. I imagine you are in your early years of university, so I have faith you will continue to learn and develop a better understanding…

        The correlation I was referring to is the relation between two things, events, happenings, etc. that may or may not exist. For example, if there is a rain storm this weekend and ticket sales at your local theater go up, it’s possible that they went up because of the storm, but you must consider the possibility that there was an outstanding variable that elicited the true causation (i.e. a blockbuster movie was released).

        Now you can re read my comment and understand what I was explaining.

        As for the second half of your reply, it’s not four straight years of his team being better with him off the ice. Maybe statistically at full strength (if your analysis is correct), but as a PP goal scorer, as a mentor, as a teammate (only one of these can be measured with data), he consistently adds value. Here’s my point: you can find a reason (backed or not backed by data) to trade any player. Don’t come to decision or make a suggestion to the public, when your findings are selective.

        And before you come back and say “How were my findings selective”, re read your article, and look at how much weight and data is poured into the arguments that support your thesis versus that of which is attributed to the contrary. You skim over the rebuttal.

        • So your argument is that I’m too selective and that there are confounding variables at play which explain the results rather than Phil Kessel’s play. I presented shots and expected goals, which are the best predictor of future goals ( and last I checked 5v5 goal differential was, in fact, the most important thing in hockey. Just in case I also presented actual goals for percentage (descriptively valuable), as well as scoring chances and individual points. By all of those metrics, my point was supportive and that’s being about as in-depth as possible unless you can present me with evidence which is more important at 5on5. Also if you think I’m not going in-depth enough there are 3 factors to special teams which is where roughly 30% of goals are scored. First up is penalty differential. Drawing penalties and not taking any decides how much time you spend on special teams and are the first half of the battle, in terms of penalty differential Phil Kessel has been the 217th most effective forward in the NHL this season (not very good). Then we have it being split into penalty killing and power play for the other half. Kessel does not kill penalties and probably wouldn’t be good if he did so he doesn’ impact that portion of the game either. Finally, we have PP. Meaning special teams where 30% of goals are scored is broken into 4 separate categories. Kessel is elite in one of those categories which definitely does not make up for not providing first line value in the other areas of hockey which make up 92.5% of the credit to go around. (Faceoffs also have a little bit of the value in there and he obviously doesn’t help there either). If you can present me with evidence that is more important than Points, Corsi, expected goals, penalty differential scoring chances and goals for percentage combined I’d love to hear it. Then we have your confounding variables argument. There are 3 major confounding variables which can affect players numbers, quality of competition, teammate and coach. First up is competition, Kessel does not play that difficult of minutes so there goes one variable. Next, we have quality of teammate which works against Kessel. Not only does he have middling results, he has middling results playing with elite centers. Jake Guentzel and Connor Sheary were top 5 in points per hour last season because playing with Malkin and Crosby explain peoples numbers being inflated, not deflated. Then the quality of the coach. Mike Sullivan is clearly an elite coach relative to Kessel’s former coaches but Kessel has still not managed to outshoot, chance and score the opposition under an elite coach. So while yes if you can present me with the confounding variable which shows why Kessel cannot drive play I’m all ears but you have to do better than saying correlation isn’t cause when arguing with a 4000-minute sample with numbers that stabilize after 150 minutes (Corsi).

  3. Chace:

    You seem like a very intelligent guy. However, intelligence is no substitute for common sense. I like what you can do with statistics. You know, there’s lies, damn lies and then there’s statistics.
    I’m a moron compared to a towering intellectual skyscraper like Chace, but I do possess a modicum of common sense. Is Phil Kessel the 30th highest paid forward in the NHL? I’ll take your word for it. Here’s what that info tells me: the Penguins are getting a SCREAMING BARGAIN. He is ridiculously underpaid compared to these lesser forwards. Are there really 29 forwards in the NHL that are better than Phil Kessel (and hence deserve to be paid more)? Pretty laughable question.
    You also seem to divide Kessel’s performance between how well he does in regular time and how well he does on the power play. Considering that the power play is the MOST LIKELY chance that a team has to score…I definitely want Kessel on my team. In fact, give me the 5 most successful players on the power play and I’m laughing. What happens at even strength may not even matter. LOL
    I have two assignments for you Chace (should you choose to accept them).

    1. Find the flaws in your own argument against Phil Kessel representing great value for the Penguins.

    2. Write a new article pointing out how AMANDA Kessel was wasted on a line with Kendall Koyne and Brianna Decker in the 2014 winter olympics. Let us know why Hilary Knight playing with Koyne and Decker is the difference between gold and silver for the USA women’s olympic hockey team. This assignment will enhance your understanding of what it takes to be a winner in hockey.

    p.s. You do not have to lecture the Pittsburgh Penguins on what it takes to put together the players to win Stanley Cups. DUCY? DUCY = do you see why?

    • Okay here goes, I should start by saying I linked to cap friendly so you don’t just have to take my word for 6.8 being 30th highest AAV right now. Next yes there is most definitely 30 better players in the NHL right now for most of what was written above. Now for the powerplay thing, yes power play performance is important and roughly 30% of goals come on special teams. The problem is Kessel doesn’t do anything to drive the bus for 70% of where goals are (5v5). Then there is that 30 % of special teams. That 30% can be divided into 2 separate bins. The first part of special teams is whether or not you actually have to play on them, this is your penalty differential. Either by drawing them or not taking many decides how much time you actually spend on special teams and is the first half of the battle (15%). Going from the tone of my piece you won’t be surprised to find out that Phil Kessel’s penalty differential impact is 217th in the NHL right now. So he doesn’t move the needle at 5on5 (70% of goals scored) and he is not good when it comes to penalty differential (the first half of the 30% of special teams goals). Then there is the actual credit on special teams. Half of that value is given to penalty killing while the other half is power-play (about 7.5% of goals each). Kessel does not kill penalties and if he did he would probably be among the worst in the NHL. There is another 7.5% of hockey where Kessel provides no value. Now we are finally down to power play, where Kessel kills it. Yes you are right PP scoring is important but by the time the goals are distributed being amazing this final bin of very roughly 7.5% of goals does not make up for not providing anywhere near first line value in all the other binds.

      • Chace,

        I appreciate the reply but it’s so far over my head. Let me phrase this in much simpler terms. Phil Kessel is on the pay scale of somebody like Tomas Plekanec (who has been making $6 million per year these last couple of years). Are you still not seeing the value of Kessel? As luck would have it, the Canadiens DID trade Plekanec to the Toronto Maple Leafs…and for what? A defensive prospect and a second round draft pick? Is that what $6 million per year centers go for now in the NHL? Would you take some prospect and a second round draft pick for Kessel? Does that improve the Penguins chances of winning another Stanley Cup?
        We watched the Pittsburgh Penguins win their second consecutive Stanley Cup last year. If that’s not an impressive enough accomplishment…they did it without their best goalie and without their best defenseman and with other more temporary injuries to key players. I could not think of any other team that would lose their best defenseman and their best goaltender (among other injuries) and still be a contender to win it all. I don’t have the statistical proof, but I suspect the Penguins are doing a good job of managing their roster.
        By the way, since you and your statistical analysis have issues with the Penguins and how they manage their roster of players…which team do your stats tell you is doing the best possible job of managing their roster? I’m just curious. Very often, I’ll get into a discussion or debate with an idealistic type who will point out that doing X would produce the greatest team…but when I ask: IN the REAL WORLD who is the closest approximation of what you consider great management…their answer leaves a lot to be desired.

        • For many reasons, the Penguins embody a team that is about to as close to optimal as possible. Other than a few exceptions (probably the Hunwick contract) they have avoided giving money to depth players and paid their stars instead. As a result, my statistical analysis also thinks the Pens are winning the cup this year ( It’s not that they are doing anything wrong with Kessel, I just think in general points are way overvalued by GM’s. Kessel is a much worse player than his point totals and name value indicate so it’s worth testing the market because some team might be infatuated with his point totals and overpay for him. Like way more than the recent Pleck trade because Kessel has so many points. As for the salary thing, there are certainly some bad players who make big money, but the players closest to Kessel’s 6.8 are Patrice Bergeron, Johhny Gaudreau, Ryan Kesler Mikou Kouvi, Nick Backstrom and David Pasternak ( 4 of those 6 names are significantly better players than Kessel while Kesler and Koivu are at very least much more well rounded. Then we have plenty of players like Wheeler and Forberg who make less. In a vacuum, I don’t think Kessel should be the 30th forward selected (or even close) if allowed to start a team for this year and given the choice of any forwards, and as a result, I think the salary is hard to justify.

          • Chace:

            I’m looking at the scoring leaders list and Kessel & Ovechkin of the Capitals both have 70 points as I type these words.
            Question: If you ran the same statistical analysis for Ovechkin and the Caps as you did for Kessel and the Pens, would you be making a case that the Capitals should trade Ovechkin? Or does Ovechkin represent greater value for the Caps than Kessel does for the Pens?
            (and I hope you’ll keep in mind that Ovechkin is about 50% more expensive … $10 million vs $6.8 million salary).
            Here’s my simpleton’s analysis: Wow! Kessel has as many points as Ovechkin and the capitals have to pay Ovechkin 50% more salary than we pay Kessel. I think we’re getting a great deal.
            Now gives us the brain-iac statistical genius interpretation. Do you stats conclude that the Pens must trade Kessel but the Capitals must keep Ovechkin? Is Ovechkin a better value? Why?

  4. Considering that Phil doesn’t even usually get warmed up until the All Star Break and the pens are chasing a 3rd Cup in 3 years, trading Kessel now would be moronic.

  5. I thought Chance brought up some really good points, you guys all need to put your emotions aside & realize he’s not suggesting that Kessel is a bad player, only that Pittsburgh could stand to sell him while his value is high & improve their team.
    It’s also worth noting that the boys in the locker room do love Kessel, which boosts team morale, but not enough to compensate for the underwhelming performance during 5v5.


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