Contextualizing Phil Kessel’s “struggles”

Tonight marks the 23rd time Phil Kessel has played a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs while on a six-game scoreless skid. If history is any indication, there’s no worse chance that Kessel will score in this game than any other on the schedule.

Welcome to the wild world of shooting percentages and slumps.

Kessel has taken a lot of heat for his start. Damien Cox has already traded him in his fantasy world, suggesting the only asset worth holding onto for the future is their first round pick this year. That means he’s already given up on not only Kessel, but also Mikhail Grabovski, Nazem Kadri, and even Morgan Rielly.

At least when Kessel was acquired it could be imagined that one day he would be an untouchable. But it hasn’t happened, and worse, in the early days of the shortened 2012-13 season it appears he may be poised to struggle through his most difficult season in a Leaf uniform yet. 

Kessel appears ill-conditioned, isolated, troubled or simply massively unlucky, or some combination of those.

Whatever the case, it is becoming difficult to imagine a scenario in which Kessel remains a Leaf beyond the end of this season. 

Part of that is, like Alex Anthopoulos with Vernon Wells, it becomes easier for the successor to exterminate the albatross than for he who attracted the burdensome seabird in the first place. [Toronto Star]

First off, the comparison between Vernon Wells and Phil Kessel is terrible. Wells was an unproductive player in the middle of a long-term, expensive, back-loaded deal that was expensive for the team and costing them wins with a below average defensive player. Kessel provides a lot of value, as a cheap 30-goal scorer in his second contract. He’s also only 25 years old, while Wells had just turned 32 when he was dispatched to the Angels.

Kessel is approaching his major payday, it hasn’t passed him by. The Leafs would be better off locking him up through his remaining three or four prime years, rather than dispatching him while his value is low. His unlucky streak to the start the season hasn’t come from just shooting percentage; two of his opposite wingers have been hurt and he’s still playing with Tyler Bozak. 

I mentioned that 22 times previous has Kessel played a game with the Leafs having scored 0 goals in the last six games going in. If you map out his six-game shooting percentage and compare it to his totals, you’ll see that shooting percentage going forward is not particularly predictive:

If his shooting percentage in six games is low, his shooting percentage increases. If his shooting percentage in six games is high, his shooting percentage decreases. There’s no rhyme or reason to the pattern other than it goes up and down seemingly at random, but if it’s very high, or very low, it will go the opposite direction within a few games.

After going scoreless in six games, Kessel has scored in 7 of those 22 games (one of those games was a two-goal effort, in a memorable 4-3 win against Boston in the 2011 season). In his 240 career games with Toronto, Kessel has scored in 83 of them. Chart it out: Kessel’s scoring rates before and after six goal scoreless droughts are similar to his production in all games:

  Games Games with ≥ 1 goal % of Games with ≥ 1 Goal
After scoreless in 6 22 7 31.8%
All Games 240 83 34.6%
  Games Goals Goals/Game
After scoreless in 6 22 8 0.36
All Games 240 91 0.38

In fact, that’s well-within Kessel’s statistical limits. I have commented before that Kessel appears to do better in games after having scored a goal. Bower Power over at PPP commented over a year ago noting the same trend, although Kessel isn’t any streakier than most top scorers. I like to say that a 30-goal scorer is less consistent than a 10-goal scorer.

Van Ryn’s Neurologist had an excellent FanPost at PPP yesterday, and though I linked to it earlier I think it’s worth noting his conclusions in this post. In one million simulated 6-game stretches for a goal scorer named “Phil” with four shots a game and a 10% shooting rate, 8% of the time, “Phil” goes goal-less:

Over a million simulations, ‘Phil’ should most often score between 1 – 4 goals. And about 92% of the time he’s potted at least one goal and we’re not really talking about anything. Maybe he’s only scored one or two and a few people chatter about his ‘slow start’ but there’s no demand that Kessel score because ‘that’s what he’s getting paid for’ especially if he’s putting up 4 shots a game.

About 8.5 % of the time, he scores 5 or more goals in the 6 game stretch. Now we’re talking about his hot start, and how great he’s been playing, and about how he’s carrying the team and how we need to lock him up for $10M/year. [Pension Plan Puppets]

Over Kessel’s Leafs career? Well, we don’t have one million six-game stretches to work with here, just 235. He’s gone goal-less in 22 of them, which is 9%, and suspiciously close to the percentage the simulation gave us.

Bottom line: Kessel is on the wrong end of puck-luck to start the season. That will change. Kessel is getting good, choice shots and will be back to his scoring ways before the season is out.


  • True or false. Kessel is more streaky or inconsistent compared to the average top 6 forward (or the top 40 forwards in the game).

    That is, we know Kessel is streaky and inconsistent. But is he more so then other NHLers.

  • Lost in the Phil Kessel story is how Ron Wilson had him start last season. Before Joffrey Lupul and him went viral, Kessel was first man back on the back check and doing a very good of it. Once his production was determined to not be an aberation, Wilson changed his assignement. Too many people say his defensive game is lacking and that he plays one dimensional.

    My observation is that Kessel plays exactly the game the coach asks of him. He doesn’t step on the ice and decide he will loop high for the breakout pass, that has been decided for him. If he comes in high on the back check that is because that again is his assignment. Anything else and it wouldn’t be very long before he would be watching and learning from the bench, or the press box. We have yet to see Kessel’s best productive year(s).

    In my opinion from the 2011 All-Star game going forward he has been in the top five in the NHL at any position. I doubt Ovechkin and Eric Staal mocking him was motivational, but since that sad day when he was picked last by those clowns he has outscored and outpointed the two of them.