As Phil Kessel enters the prime of his career, the Leafs talented goal scorer has been one of the most polarizing figures in the Toronto hockey world. On one hand, he is a perennial 30-goal scorer that has natural ability on the offensive end, while on the other hand, Kessel’s critics at times view him as a “soft”, one-way player, that gives an inconsistent level of play at times.
But are Kessel’s critics really fair to call him an inconsistent, one-way player?
Maybe when Kessel was a young, 22-year-old sniper given the keys to one of hockey’s most iconic franchises, you could label him as that. But as Kessel has matured in age, so has his game. When you really look at Phil Kessel‘s time in Toronto, you will quickly realize that he has actually been one of the NHL’s most consistent players – not an inconsistent, one-way player.
From a goal scoring standpoint, Kessel is as consistent as they come; scoring 20 or more goals in his last six seasons, and 30 or more in five of his last six seasons – joining a very exclusive class of the NHL’s elite goal scorers. This part of Kessel’s game is well-known though.
So where else is Kessel one of the league’s most consistent players?
Well, let’s start with the rest of his offensive game, where Kessel has posted 30+ assists in four straight seasons, but more importantly posted 20 or more first assists in 4 straight seasons, as well as 40 or more primary points (a goal or first assist) in four straight seasons. Really, when you evaluate Kessel’s offensive game, he is as steady as they come, posting consistent year-to-year numbers in shots, shooting percentage, power play points, pass/shot ratio, average shot distance and more. His consistency among the leagues best offensive players really highlights his propensity to create scoring chances in the offensive zone.
Past Kessel’s elite offensive ability, he carries a unique skill set that truly separates him from the NHL’s scoring wingers. This skill set would be the fact that Phil Kessel plays a 200-foot game, while most offensive players around the league have the rink minimized as much as possible.
How do we see this?
Zone starts provided by Extra Skater reveals a telling story of Phil Kessel’s underrated versatility on the ice. Statisticians measure zone starts by the percentage of where the player starts his shift – whether it be in the offensive zone, neutral zone or defensive zone. These zone starts matter because with the shift to advanced analytics in hockey, more and more teams use zone starts to deploy their players in the most beneficial situations. The best offensive players tend to have a zone start configuration that favours the offensive zone, while defensive or face-off specialists are generally deployed more in the neutral zone and defensive zone.
To really show Kessel’s unique skill set, here are a few players that are widely compared to Kessel, or considered better than him. We’ll take the name away and compare these players on solely a statistical basis.
All three players are offensive dynamo’s, but there are two glaring differences between the players that really makes you ponder about their overall output. The metrics of power play time-on-ice percentage and defensive zone start percentage reveal an unheralded aspect of Kessel’s game – his ability to play a 200-foot game.
As you can see in the table above, players like Patrick Kane are used in offensive zone situations far more frequently than they are in defensive zone situations. By allowing these players to play only half of the ice, their respective teams are maximizing their offensive chances with less ice to skate. But the same does not hold true for Kessel.
Just how unique are Kessel’s deployment metrics though?
When you scan the NHL for other wingers that consistently average 70+ points a season, while starting 30% or more of their shifts in the defensive zone, you will be hard pressed to find more than three players who consistently do this on a year-to-year basis. Phil Kessel is one of them.
What makes Kessel’s ability to play a consistent 200-foot game even more impressive is who he plays with. The biggest difference between Kessel and those two west coast stars you immediately think of is their centre men. Kessel has Tyler Bozak, while Perry has Ryan Getzlaf and Marleau has either Joe Thornton, Logan Couture or Joe Pavelski.
No disrespect to Tyler Bozak, but needless to say, there is a bit of a talent gap difference there.
Imagine Kessel playing side-by-side with Getzlaf or Thornton. Or even starting 10% more of his shifts in the offensive zone like a Patrick Kane does?
Scary thought right?
I understand that some of Kessel’s numbers are a bi-product of the team around him being consistently out-shot and starting in their own zone, and the fact that advanced statistics do not tell the entire story. Yes there are additional factors that affect Kessel’s production, but from a pure player standpoint as a winger in the NHL, Kessel is among not only the league’s most consistent, but the league’s very best.
With two 80-point seasons already under Kessel’s belt in Toronto, a little incline to his offensive zone starts could potentially give Leafs Nation their first 40-goal scorer since Mats Sundin. Or who knows, maybe a 90-point player? Really, at 26 years old, the sky is the limit for Phil Kessel as he enters his prime.