Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel lines up for a face-off during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Pittsburgh on Oct. 17, 2015. (Gene J. Puskar/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Phil Kessel tried to throw his helmet on top of his stall after his first morning skate back at Air Canada Centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It took a second attempt, as he had to adjust to a different environment from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ locker-room he was used to.
“They’re tall, eh?” Kessel said with a smile. “It’s a little different, right? Different feeling. But I love this city, and it’s good to be back.”
Kessel already faced his former teammates in Pittsburgh in mid-October, but Saturday marked his return to the city in which he became an NHL star and the place he called home for six years. Onto his next chapter with the Penguins, the 28-year-old right-winger didn’t feel it was the time to reflect on why things didn’t work out in Toronto.
“You’re going to have to ask (Leafs management),” Kessel said. “Obviously I signed here to be here. I made a commitment. That’s how it goes. It’s hockey, right? It’s a business, and you move on.”
The $64-million (U.S.), eight-year contract Kessel signed with the Leafs didn’t even get underway until he was already with the Penguins. Toronto traded him to Pittsburgh on July 1 in exchange for a conditional pick, defenceman Scott Harrington, forward Nick Spaling and prospect Kasperi Kapanen.
Kessel said it was strange to be back at Air Canada Centre, an arena he excelled in during his Leafs tenure. During his pro career, he has averaged almost a half a goal a game in Toronto.
“He led the team in scoring, I think, every year,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “I’m sure he would’ve liked to get a few more wins and have things end a little bit differently, but I think he did a good job here.”
Kessel had 181 goals and 213 assists for 394 points in 446 regular-season games with the Leafs and had six points in the seven-game series against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 playoffs.
But Kessel was the subject of plenty of criticism in Toronto as the Leafs’ best player. Captain Dion Phaneuf said recently that “what’s happened in the past is done,” and Crosby believes it was a bit of a product of the intense spotlight.
“There’s ups and downs during the season, and there’s obviously a lot of attention on the team here,” Crosby said. “He was a big part of the team for a long time here, so I’m sure that a lot of that pressure and responsibility kind of sat on his shoulders.”
In Pittsburgh, there’s less pressure on Kessel because he’s on the same team with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, defenceman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. That core won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and adding Kessel was a bit of a luxury.
Coach Mike Johnston said Kessel has been adjusting to his new teammates, playing alongside first Crosby and more recently Malkin. But he has been pleased with how Kessel has received coaching messages.
Johnston and Leafs counterpart Mike Babcock each hope Kessel facing the Leafs Oct. 17 in Pittsburgh took some edge off his return. The Leafs reportedly had not planned any kind of tribute to Kessel, which should fit his mantra of treating this like any other game.
So even though he wasn’t used to being in the visiting locker-room, Kessel tried to reflect Saturday afternoon on his time there from 2006-2009 with the Bruins.
“I played against the Leafs my first few years in the league, so I’ve been in this dressing-room before,” Kessel said. “It’s different because I love this city and I spent a lot of time here. But it’s another game.”