Back on June 29th, the Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins sent disgruntled forward Phil Kessel and Dane Birks, plus a fourth-round pick in 2021 to the Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and prospect defenceman Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
Phil Kessel as a Coyote
When the trade was announced this writer was stunned… as many other hockey fans were. Most everyone knew that Kessel was unhappy for whatever reason in Pittsburgh. There had been rumours that the Pittsburgh management and coaching staff had had their fill of Phil. So, the trade happened.
In giving up a younger Galchenyuk, many considered that the Coyotes were star struck with the fact that they could acquire a player of Kessel’s stature. There was another key factor that played into the trade even happening. Kessel had to approve the trade and he had turned down another trade with the Minnesota Wild since he didn’t see himself playing there.
The central reason Phil decided to go to Arizona was due to the relationship he had with head coach Rick Tocchet while Tocchet had been an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. It seemed that Tocchet could handle Kessel’s idiosyncrasies and keep him happy.
So, let’s evaluate how Phil is doing in Arizona and even how Galchenyuk is getting along in Pittsburgh.
Thus far this 2019-20 season, Phil Kessel has three goals and nine assists in 21 games. Not bad, right? Well, when one inspects his statistics over the same number of games last season while a member of the Penguins, things become clearer. He did much better with 10 goals, 16 assists. That means he had 1.24 points per game with Pittsburgh and has only 0.57 points per game with Arizona.
The reason Kessel did much better in Pittsburgh were his linemates. When you have Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby skating with you things accelerate in the scoring department. It must be noted that on those 10 goals Kessel scored in his first 21 games last season Malkin assisted on eight, while Crosby helped him out on the other two. When you have two superstar players setting you up, results will follow. Of Phil’s three tallies this current season, Clayton Keller and Derek Stepan have assisted on two of them.
Kessel played with that duo for the first part of October and then has been switched to different linemates including Christian Dvorak even rookie Barrett Hayton. Tocchet likes to change up his lines conditioned on how guys are playing together. In the last 3-0 shutout over the Calgary Flames, Kessel was lined up on the third line with Lawson Crouse and Carl Soderberg. He assisted on Soderberg’s sixth goal of the year.
If anyone would have said that a young, upstart forward by the name of Conor Garland would have nine goals, while the veteran Kessel has just three, they would have said you were crazy.
Alex Galchenyuk isn’t exactly paying big dividends yet for the Penguins. He has been hampered by injuries at the beginning of the season, as he was last year with the Arizona club. He’s only managed five assists in 11 games that he has suited up for thus far. That is hardly the return that Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford had hoped to receive while giving up a player of Kessel’s caliber.
In fact according to Dan Kingerski who writes for pittsburghhockeynow.com his days could be numbered if he doesn’t start playing better. Galchenyuk’s $4.9 million contract expires after this season. The team feels if they had to move him they would have no problem doing that.
Head coach Mike Sullivan feels Galchenyuk needs to focus more on what he can control rather than scoring all the time. “Part of it is taking the focus off of the scoring and focusing on what you can control. And that’s just how you play the game, how you think the game, how hard you compete for pucks. Just being focused on that next play and I think goals will come,” Sullivan said.
When the Coyotes traded Max Domi for Galchenyuk the same criticisms were heard. He was a puck hog and didn’t play a team game. They even put him at centre since that was his beef in Montreal and that didn’t work out.
With Crosby injured for at least six weeks, the Penguins need Galchenyuk to show up. Will he?
Evaluating the Kessel Trade
Most certainly, adding Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes roster should be a huge shot in the arm to the offence. While two of his three goals have been of the powerplay variety, more need to happen. What most forgot, or didn’t realize is that Kessel is an excellent playmaker as well as a scorer. His nine assists attest that that theory. His biggest quality which was lacking for the Coyotes is his ability to get the puck in the offensive zone. He’s excellent along the boards and wins puck battles. Something that Galchenyuk has yet to learn.
With Kessel, the Coyotes have a better record through 21 games this season as compared to 2018-19. It took them four more games last season to gain 26 points than it has taken this year. That’s an improvement, and while Kessel cannot be given all the credit, he can be given some of it. They’re a better team with him than without him.
Comparing the Penguins without Kessel’s 26 points last season over their first 21 games shows who has won the trade… at least at this juncture of the season. Then, seeing how poorly Galchenyuk has done in Pittsburgh seals the deal.
What the Future Holds
Will Kessel take off and score as much as expected? Perhaps, but it’s much more likely that his all-around play will help the team more. Kessel is always a scoring threat, so when defenders come to him, he can always dish the biscuit off to a wide-open teammate for a scoring chance.
It’s simple really… the Coyotes are a better team with Kessel, while the Penguins are not a better team with Galchenyuk. We’ll see how things progress. After over a quarter of the new season in the books, the Penguins must be regretting let Phil go.