In less than a year, Phil Kessel has lived the darkest period of his career before knowing the climax.
The star winger completed a crescendo in the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, leading the club in scoring title playoffs en route to a Stanley Cup. And all this 11 months and 12 days after leaving the disgraced Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s a long year, but this is the best of my life,” acknowledged Kessel with emotions and sporting a beard well on Sunday at the SAP Center, while the Penguins celebrated their triumph.
This is one of the most unpredictable outcomes for Kessel, whose career was in free fall when he left the Leafs last July. He had just experienced its worst season in the NHL and was identified as the major responsible for the problems that plagued the Toronto team.
His personality was criticized by various media and a number of supporters, and even club members have hinted not so subtly that they were happy to see him go.
The Director-General of the Penguins, Jim Rutherford, however, targeted Kessel as its candidate No. 1, not letting himself clearly not deterred by the criticism of his personality and that its performance on the ice were in decline.
Rutherford was fascinated by the speed and Kessel marker talent. These two strengths Kessel proved important factors in the playoffs.
Kessel scored 10 goals making way towards the cup, leading the Penguins with 22 points. His trio, with the rapid Carl Hagelin and center Nick Bonino, has proved the most effective of the Penguins.
“It’s a big change from where I was before,” said Kessel about his move to Pennsylvania.
His former teammates Maple Leafs, who currently play for the Sharks, have often ask the same question when it comes to Kessel: What is different about Phil? They shake their heads, knowing that in reality nothing has changed.
Kessel, aged 28, is the same player he always was, but with better teammates.
“I have not changed anything, acknowledged Kessel. I play as I have done throughout my career. Obviously, you do not get many chances like this, so you should try to be at your best. ”
Pittsburgh teammates describe him as a quiet guy, happy and competitive.
“You always hear things about guys and obviously they are presented differently, but Phil is a real nice guy, said Bryan Rust winger. It is a bit of quiet type, reserved. But it’s a team guy who does everything he can to help his teammates. He always has a smile. ”
The Penguins coach Mike Sullivan argued throughout the playoffs that Kessel has become a more complete player over the month in Pittsburgh. The Toronto coaches had expressed similar expectations throughout his career with the Leafs, but without result.
Everything indicates that Kessel was more constant in its efforts during the course of the Penguins to the cut.
“When I watch him play, I say, he is determined to help us win,” noted Sullivan after the fourth game.
Sullivan praised the diligence of Kessel when he is not in possession of the puck and intensity he demonstrates to retrieve loose pucks in the defensive zone.
Kessel still has six years left to the heavy contract the Penguins have decided to acquire on July 1 last and no one knows what will happen in the end. But no matter, this decision is a victory for the Penguins in the light of the championship he helped win.
Kessel had received a call from Sidney Crosby shortly after his transfer to Pittsburgh and Crosby had told him how he was excited to have him as a teammate again. They would try to win the cup together, had said Crosby.
“And we succeeded, said Kessel. It’s an incredible feeling. ”