Say what you will about his talent, it sounds more and more everyday like the Pittsburgh Penguins are happy to have moved on from the Phil Kessel era of their franchise.
On Friday the Penguins handed out a big new contract to head coach Mike Sullivan, a man that was rumored to have been one of Kessel's biggest detractors during his time in Pittsburgh. It was a clear sign that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford was giving his veteran head coach a vote of confidence, but it was also a sign that Rutherford had clearly chosen a side in the long rumored feud between his now former star forward and his head coach.
You can hardly blame Rutherford for making the decision that he did in the end given the whispers that have hounded Kessel, whispers regarding the way he conducts himself behind the scenes, throughout his career. The Athletic's Rob Rossi published a storypublished a story that described how Kessel was a negative influence on some of the organizations younger players, most notably Jake Guentzel, and even some of the Penguins' top stars, with Evgeni Malkin being mentioned specifically. Keeping all of that in mind it's easy to see why the Penguins decided to move on, but will they be able to replace Kessel's production? Well according to a recent interview it is clear that Sullivan believes that the improved chemistry brought on by recent changes will make up for what the team lost in Phil Kessel.
"We certainly have capable people," Sullivan said as per NHL.com. "You can look at our team. We had a guy like Jake Guentzel, for example, that was playing on the second power play and he was our leading goal-scorer (40). Jake is a guy that we know can play on that first unit and be very productive. We have the ability to use two defensemen, if we like, with Justin Schultz and [Kris Letang], who are two right-handed shots. Alex Galchenyuk (acquired in the Kessel trade) is an interesting player that has shown an ability to score goals and can really shoot the puck."
Following the trade general manager Jim Rutherford revealed that he had dealt with multiple trade demands on the part of Kessel during his time with the Penguins, something Kessel himself denied, indicating that there had been some unhappiness behind the scenes for some time. Sullivan indicated during his recent comments that he feels his current group of players will all be committed to a singular purpose.
"We just felt that, as a group, we didn't come together the way we should have or could have in order to maximize the potential of our group," he said. "I think part of what excites us moving forward is the enthusiasm that some of the new players acquired have expressed to us ... how excited they are with the opportunity in front of them to become part of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization and become part of a group that potentially has a chance to win Stanley Cups."
Only time will tell if the Pittsburgh Penguins made the right move in the end.