The 2022 NHL free agent class includes a generous helping of veteran NHL stars who may, or may not, be looking to continue their NHL careers and pursue their first, or simply one more, Stanley Cup. That class includes the likes of Patrice Bergeron, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, and four members of the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Phil Kessel.
After beginning his career with the Boston Bruins and being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kessel had an impressive run in Toronto before again being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015. The acquisition of Kessel appeared to be just the thing the Penguins needed to be put over the top, winning Stanley Cups in each of Kessel’s first two years with the team. The star forward would put up 59 and 70 points in his first two seasons, and as impressive as those numbers were, he found a new gear in the postseason, boasting 22 points in 24 playoff games in the 2016 Cup run, and 23 points in 25 games in the 2017 Cup run. The Penguins would not find the same success after 2017, but Kessel would continue to up his game, turning in 34 goals and 58 assists for a career-best 92 points in 2017-18. He’d follow that season up with his second-highest single-season point total for his career with 82 in 2018-19 before Pittsburgh dealt him to Arizona in the summer of 2019.
Since the trade to Arizona, Kessel has not seen the same level of production as he did in Toronto and Pittsburgh, but he has continued to be a consistent, valuable performer for the struggling Coyotes. Kessel’s name had been in discussion as a possible trade chip ahead of this year’s trade deadline, but with his $8MM cap hit and his struggles to find the back of the net this season, a trade seemed difficult even if Arizona was to retain a portion of Kessel’s cap hit.
Predicting the star forward’s next contract may prove to be a very difficult task. On one hand, while he was far from a poor performer in Arizona, he is not the player he once was. He turned in a very respectable 52-point season in 2021-22, however just eight of his 52 points were goals. Looking deeper at that number, Kessel’s ice-time was the lowest it has been since 2008-09, however his average of 16:41 was not much lower than the 17:05 he averaged last season, where he scored 20 goals in just 56 games. The most concerning metric of Kessel’s is his shooting percentage, which sits at 10.8% for his career, but dipped to an eye-popping 4.6% this season.
Worrisome as his goal-scoring woes this year are, Kessel’s consistent point-production for his career has actually been combined with some slight inconsistencies when it comes to his goal scoring and shooting percentage. Notably, his shooting percentage dropped to as low as 8.9% in 2014-15, when he scored 25 goals. Also on a positive note, the highest shooting percentage of Kessel’s career came in 2020-21, when it reached a remarkable 17.4%.
It seems like just yesterday that a 19-year-old rookie Phil Kessel beat cancer midseason and won the Masterton Trophy in the 2006-07 season, however now Kessel will turn 35 just before opening night of the 2022-23 season. Despite his age, Kessel does offer reliability; the knowledge that he will be in the lineup every single night. Currently, he owns the longest active ironman streak in the NHL, playing 982 consecutive games. The longest streak in NHL history belongs to Keith Yandle, who’s record of 989 consecutive games was secured, and snapped, earlier this season.
Not the player he once was, but still effective and a bona-fide playoff ace, the veteran Kessel should have his pick of teams to go to in order to provide depth scoring, leadership, and experience to chase another Stanley Cup if he wishes. Having just finished an eight-year, $64MM contract, Kessel will certainly not be seeing that term or AAV again, but given where his game currently stands, he may be able to have his pick depending on his priorities.
One option could be to take a team-friendly contract in hopes of filling a role on one more Stanley Cup winning team, such as Corey Perry is attempting with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the recently-retired Jason Spezza had been attempting with Toronto. Another option would be to maximize his value and his role with a team, though he may have to look for an organization with some salary cap flexibility, which may not be as likely of a Cup-contender as other options. Either way, though another $64MM is unrealistic, his consistent production, brought every single night should be enough to afford Kessel with a number of options to pick from, an ideal situation for most veteran athletes.