When he does speak to the media, Phil Kessel doesn’t shy away from his career-low output and disappointing results this season.
Kessel knows that the mere five even-strength goals he scored this season for the Arizona Coyotes is just half as many as his previous low set during his age-19 season. Kessel knows that he took fewer shots on goal this season than any year prior. And he knows that, despite those numbers, he finished with a shooting percentage that wasn’t too far off from his career average.
“Obviously I had a tough year,” Kessel said via conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “… It’s one of those years and obviously I look at it like I’m never going to have that again. So, you know, I’m looking to bounce back and this is a good time to get it started again.”
And for the Coyotes — who are slated to participate in the 24-team postseason tournament if the NHL successfully returns to play — it was a season filled with ups, downs and a whole lot of Phil.
Specifically for Kessel, who on Wednesday will celebrate the one-year anniversary of his trade to the Coyotes from the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was several months of mixed results, nagging injuries, and tough questions.
Kessel said Tuesday that the 2019-20 season was perhaps the most injury-laden campaign he had ever experienced, although Kessel declined to call it the biggest factor in his struggles to produce this season.
We know Kessel dealt with a groin injury early on. Although it’s unclear just how much it affected him, Kessel’s patented explosive skating was noticeably absent on many occasions.
Kessel seemed to suggest there were even more injuries, or that the groin injury stuck around for longer than we had initially assumed. Kessel — in his typical fashion — did not miss any of the Coyotes’ 70 regular-season games, extending his consecutive games played streak to 844 games.
His performance certainly suggested that Kessel might have benefited from a break or two during the season. Expected to bolster scoring on a team starved for offense, Kessel scored just two even-strength goals before the holiday break in December and failed to find much consistency on the Coyotes’ power play.
Kessel, who is still under contract through 2022, didn’t put nearly as many pucks on net in 2019-20 as he had historically throughout his career. However, his ability to finish seemed fine and not too much of a departure from his career average. The more alarming statistics were Kessel’s low shot volume and inability to produce timely goals — especially at even strength.
A popular defense for Kessel has been that he was without any elite center next to him, an obvious reference to his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. And while there is some truth to that — Kessel’s top options with the Coyotes were often Derek Stepan or Nick Schmaltz — Kessel didn’t exactly have prolific centers during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he produced around 65 to 85 points per season.
But offense wasn’t the only part of Kessel’s game that rubbed viewers the wrong way. Kessel has always received criticism for his defense and game away from the puck, and that carried into his first season with the Coyotes. Historically for Kessel, all can be forgiven in the shadow of an all-star-caliber offensive season, but Kessel managed only 14 goals and 38 points in 2019-20, marking what was undoubtedly his worst altogether season since he was a teenager.
Kessel’s lack of finish and visible lack of consistency across the board quickly made fans impatient. As the Coyotes tried to rise in the Pacific Division standings, their lack of offense forced them to make a blockbuster trade for Taylor Hall in which they parted ways with talented prospects and picks.
After all that, the Coyotes were still on the outside of a playoff spot when the NHL paused play on March 11. Fortunately for them, the league expanded the postseason to include 24 teams upon a return to play, which would give the Coyotes a chance at competing for the Stanley Cup.
Kessel, who has always played his best hockey in big games and playoff series, said Tuesday he feels the best he has felt all season. That’s good news for Coyotes fans, who desperately want to see that Kessel over the one they got in the regular season.
“I feel good right now,” Kessel said, adding that he is looking forward to training camps opening July 10. “I feel better than I did all year so I’m excited. My body feels good, I feel rester, and I’m going to be ready to go.”
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