After months of speculation about perennial scapegoat Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs' new regime finally jettisoned him on July 1—but not without a golden parachute. Instead of punishing the 28-year-old right wing for the team's failures, Toronto dispatched him to Pittsburgh, where he'll begin a potentially career-altering partnership with superstar center Sidney Crosby.
Kessel, who ranks fifth in goals (181) since 2009--10, brings all-world speed and a lethal wrist shot to Crosby's wing, a spot occupied mostly by mediocre players for the last 10 years. Crosby will, in turn, give his new teammate breathing room: Without having to face a voracious press corps daily or bear the brunt of failures as he did in Toronto, Kessel (below, 81, with Crosby) can just focus on playing.
"We put so much more depth in our forward lines, a lot more balance," GM Jim Rutherford says. "We should be able to win games [in] different ways now."
Crosby's tactical north-south game will force the more instinctually inclined Kessel to adjust, but his blazing speed should complement Crosby's quick playmaking abilities. In their preseason debut, Kessel scored twice, and his new linemate Crosby earned assists on both goals. Kessel's shoot-first mentality should lift an offense that ranked 19th, especially on the power play, where Pittsburgh struggled late last season (13.9% in its final 38 games, including the playoffs). A dearth of goals, particularly in their first-round defeat to the Rangers, was a major factor in another early exit for the Penguins.
Kessel also has the chance to shed his reputation for being aloof and indifferent— qualities that had scores of columnists and fans celebrating his departure from Toronto. "He's not a bad guy at all," Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly says. "[The media] tried to paint him that way a little bit. But that never bothered him, and I think the fact that he wasn't bothered by it really bothered the media."
The good news for Pittsburgh? Even if Kessel doesn't find long-term chemistry with Crosby, there's always Plan B: lining him up next to the team's other playmaking phenom, Evgeni Malkin.
JOE SARGENT/PITTSBURGH PENGUINS