Why Phil Kessel just might be the ultimate playoff black ace for the Canucks

Photo credit:© Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
2 months ago
Last time the Vancouver Canucks added a player to their roster, we told fans they should be “ecstatic.”
So how should they feel about the latest potential addition?
Thrilled, of course.
It’s true. NHL legend and possible future Hall of Famer Phil Kessel is in Abbotsford skating and working out, and if all goes well, he’ll be signing a contract with the Canucks. Darren Dreger has said that he’d put money on the signing eventually happening.
Best of all? Since Kessel is a free agent, coming out of pseudo-retirement after ten months away from the game, he costs absolutely zero assets to add to the roster.
Well, almost zero assets.
As our own Jeff Paterson pointed out yesterday, placing Kessel on the active roster would require the removal of another player. Right now, the choice is easy: Jett Woo is currently cooling his heels in the pressbox, so he’s the obvious demotion.
But Woo is really just holding a place for the injured Carson Soucy, who will return at some point. Whenever that happens, another player would have to be removed from the equation, and that’s where things get complicated.
If they could have it all their way, the Canucks would almost certainly prefer to avoid placing any of Mark Friedman, Sam Lafferty, Nils Åman, or Phil di Giuseppe on waivers.
But they simply can’t have all of those players, plus Kessel and Soucy, all on the same active NHL roster without some sort of other transaction going down.
But what if the solution is even easier than that? What if Kessel never hits the Canucks’ regular season roster, and just remains in waiting for the playoffs.
Functionally, it’s simple. The Canucks sign Kessel to a standard contract, assign him to Abbotsford, and hope that no one snags him on waivers (which seems unlikely to happen after ten months away from the game.)
As of the Trade Deadline, maximum roster sizes go away, but teams are restricted to four non-emergency post-deadline callups. By Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all roster restrictions go away, as does the cap, and Kessel can safely be recalled without having to ditch anyone else.
Let’s be honest here. Kessel probably needs the time to get back up to game shape, anyway. There are about eight weeks left in the 2023/24 regular season. That’s enough time for Kessel to get into more than 20 games for Abbotsford, if that’s what he needs.
All the while, if any injuries occur, Kessel is free to be recalled as an injury replacement without having to risk anyone to waivers. But should no injuries occur, that’s okay, too. The potential Kessel signing is really all about having him on hand for the playoffs, anyway.
In Kessel, the Canucks have perhaps the best possible black ace they could ever get their hands on.
Which is exactly what they need him to be. At this point, there’s no one that Kessel rightfully kicks out of the Canucks lineup, anyway.
But as an extra hand on deck for the postseason? He’s the perfect guy to have around.
As we said at the outset, Phil the Thrill is a legend, and not just for his atypical personality. The man is a three-time Stanley Cup champion.
Prior to his arrival, the Canucks’ players had won a collective three Cups themselves, but none without Phil involved: two for Ian Cole with Kessel and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and one for Teddy Blueger alongside Kessel and the Golden Knights last year.
Kessel can be said to have played a much larger role in some of those Cup wins than either Cole or Blueger, too. He received Conn Smythe buzz in both 2016 and 2017, and he’s currently rocking playoff totals of 83 points in 100 career games.
Only Cole has seen more postseason action in his career with 116 games.
Think of all the valuable lessons that Kessel can impart on the younger core Canucks from his multiple years of being a leading force on a Cup-contending team.
But when we talk about Kessel’s experience, we don’t just mean games played. It’s also all about the context.
Kessel has won for a Jim Rutherford-run team before. He’s played under Rick Tocchet in the playoffs before, making it to the second round in 2020 with the Arizona Coyotes. He’s got playoff experience in the Pacific Division in specific, having seen the Vegas Golden Knights from the inside-out last year.
But perhaps of most value to the Canucks is Kessel’s experience back in his Toronto days. Few understand the pressures of playing in a Canadian market like Kessel, who once had journalist Steve Simmons fabricate a tale about his daily consumption of hot dogs.
There’s just so much knowledge that Kessel can add to the Canucks’ dressing room, even if he never actually dresses. Anything the Canucks might face this year, Kessel has already faced, and in most cases, met head-on.
Of course, experience only goes so far, and when it comes to being an experienced healthy scratch, sometimes that experience can constitute a distraction. After all, who wants to scratch a legend?
Fortunately, we don’t foresee that being the case with Kessel, specifically. In part thanks to that treatment he received in Toronto and in part due to his own good nature, Kessel has developed one of the humblest and most self-effacing personalities in all of hockey. This is a fellow who ate hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup, and who guffawed while being made the last pick in the first ever All-Star draft. If Kessel’s a black ace in the playoffs, he’s not going to be one to sulk and pout. He’s going to come to the rink with a big smile on his face every day all the same, because that’s what Kessel has always done.
When a team is rolling as well as the Canucks are, there’s always the risk of rocking the boat by bringing in someone new. Kessel seems almost custom-designed to not rock the boat. Want concrete evidence of that? The Golden Knights made Kessel a healthy scratch on route to the Stanley Cup last year, and it was barely a story, despite Kessel’s well-known reputation as the NHL’s leading iron man.
Kessel never complained, and the Golden Knights were not at all distracted by his presence in the pressbox. Much the opposite.
Then there’s the ultimate job of the black ace to consider: actually hopping into the lineup when the injuries pile up. Folks are right to be skeptical about Kessel’s ability to keep up with the pace of regular season play after ten months off. He’s never been the fleetest of foot, and he’s 36 years old.
The same could probably be said of Round One of the playoffs. But there’s a funny thing about the NHL postseason, and it’s that as it wears on, and the war of attrition starts to take its toll, the hockey actually slows down a fair amount.
We’re not going to make any bold predictions about the Canucks making it to multiple rounds quite yet. But if they do, they can anticipate a slower brand of hockey, and that might just be the perfect time for Kessel to hop in and start doing his goal-scoring thing.
And there you have our argument for why Phil Kessel can be a vital postseason addition for the Canucks, even if he never actually plays a game for them.
There’s the vital and expansive experience in so many relevant areas.
There’s the low-maintenance, uber-positive personality.
There’s the ability to step into a scoring role at any point in time, but especially when the playoff grind is at its peak.
Really, what more could one possibly ask for in a black ace?
Not much. Kessel seems absolutely perfect for the role.

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