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It’s time to really talk about Phil Kessel’s comeback season

NHL: Vegas at Arizona Coyotes Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t really sit down and talk about the nitty gritty details of Phil Kessel as a hockey player very often.

Even if the 33-year old Kessel were to never step foot on the ice in an NHL game again — which, given his impressively-long active iron man streak, is an incredibly unlikely scenario — he’d retire as one of the most decorated American-born hockey players of his generation.

He sits behind only Patrick Kane on the American active player scoring sheet, boasting 904 points over a 1,122 game career so far. He’s a silver medal Olympian, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, and a U18 World Juniors gold medalist. He’s made three All-Star Game appearances, put up a whopping seven hat tricks (never, from the time he arrived in the NHL, going more than three seasons without one), and managed to work his way to third in all-time postseason scoring among active American-born players — despite suffering through a six-year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs that boasted just one playoff appearance for a single seven-game round.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Then, of course, there’s his durability. Phil Kessel is the proud owner of an iron man streak of 900 consecutive games played, which he hit during Arizona’s regular-season finale on Saturday. That puts him third among active streaks, behind only Patrick Marleau’s 906 consecutive games (which will likely end where it is with his imminent retirement speculated widely) and Keith Yandle’s 921 games. It’s fifth all-time — a feat unlikely to get ousted any time soon, given that the closest active iron man streak coming up behind his is Brent Burns’ 596-game stretch.

That kind of player crib sheet is enough to earn them a position of high esteem in hockey history, to be sure. The fact that Kessel has strung together such an impressive resumé despite missing time his rookie season to be treated for testicular cancer is even more impressive; the Boston Bruins’ 2006 fifth overall pick lost just 11 regular-season games following his surgery, rejoining the team just two days shy of one month after he was first hospitalized.

When we talk about Phil Kessel, though, it’s easy to put the hockey skill second. Yes, he’s an elite scorer — among those active American-born players, he’s taken more shots on goal in the regular season than any other, Kane included — but he gets far more attention because he’s even larger than life as an off-ice persona (despite his best efforts). A notoriously private person who would happily spend his entire career far away from microphones and cameras, Phil Kessel has been screen-printed on t-shirts and meme-d into oblivion, slandered in articles falsely alleging he eats too much to care about his team, and debated over in Reddit threads and comment sections for everything from his defensive awareness (not great) to simply the way he looks.

It’s a source of delight for most to see a man you’d readily welcome into your home to fix your clogged kitchen sink lighting up the scoresheet in one of the most physically demanding professional sports leagues in the world. In the era of body positivity, Phil Kessel is a happy reminder for many that talent comes in every shape and size.

Too often, though, Phil Kessel the Hockey Player ends up getting overlooked. People talk about that time a writer fabricated an entire tale about Kessel’s obsession with visiting a local hot dog stand, speculating about what all those bratwursts (that, as it turns out, never existed) were doing to his play. They talk about that other time that a camera caught him hilariously griping at former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle for chirping him about not getting his roommate to bring him to the rink earlier. They talk about his absolutely incredible Olympic Team roster photo, or the time his realtor awkwardly staged his Pittsburgh home for photos by placing one lone recliner in the middle of an empty theater room surrounded by bizarre movie posters, or that other article that accused him of not having the right kind of work ethic or attitude to be worthy of a national team roster. Even when you search for Kessel highlights on Youtube, you can find a video of a then-much-younger Phil getting teasingly laid into by Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf for eating too many cookies on media day.

Kessel himself is perfectly capable of handling the criticism and clapping back in his own very Phil Kessel way. He posed with a hot dog-filled Stanley Cup after winning for a second consecutive season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He beat Tyler Seguin, notoriously one of the NHL’s most ‘conventionally’ fit players, in the speed skater competition at the 2015 All-Star Game. And when the Toronto media came for his former captain in Phaneuf, Kessel sounded off loudly — more so than he ever did sticking up for himself — expressing his disgust over their lack of professionalism.

But Phil Kessel is closing out a 20-goal season this spring. Over an 82-game stretch, that’s good for a 30-goal pace, which would have more than doubled his output from a 2019-20 season in Arizona that he admitted was an underachievement on his part due to some lingering injuries. He was one of Arizona’s shining stars in a frustrating, playoffs-less season, all the way down to his five points in the team’s final two games to close things out on a high note despite their playoff miss.

Which is, in short, to say that Phil Kessel isn’t Arizona’s 2021 Masterton nominee because he looks like the captain of a particularly enterprising Alaskan fishing vessel. He was decided upon by the 2021 Arizona Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association because we believe that his ability to bounce back from a frustrating debut season in the desert, returning to his elite scoring form after getting an extended off-season to properly heal up from some lingering injuries, was the team’s best example of a player who persevered and dedicated himself to the sport of ice hockey — and his willingness to step up and help guide some of Arizona’s younger players in the offensive zone, even when shuffled down to the middle two lines to help prop up struggling depth players, was a quality showing of sportsmanship.

It wasn’t quite the same kind of comeback he made when he won the Masterton in 2007, but it was the most impressive comeback made by anyone on the roster — by quite a large stretch, too.