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Expectations, new circumstances greet Phil Kessel with Arizona Coyotes

(Norm Hall Photography via Arizona Coyotes)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Most or all of the Arizona Coyotes players were at Gila River Arena on Tuesday, skating together in preparation for the looming start to training camp.

Yet seemingly none of them — not even the ones who have already put in the ice time to endear themselves to Coyotes fans — have generated as much excitement for the upcoming season as the eccentric Phil Kessel, who hadn’t ever worn a Coyotes sweater until he was told to put it on for the cameras.

The Coyotes introduced Kessel to the media on Tuesday in Glendale in a press conference live-streamed to fans, some of whom have already changed their Twitter usernames or made purchases to pay homage to the new fan favorite. The fans’ excitement for a six-time 30-goal scorer is as evident as it is understandable.

But Kessel has only played NHL games for the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins — all teams that hold more cachet among the league’s traditionalists and that have bigger fanbases and more media coverage than Arizona. Coyotes fans may say that Kessel is a kind of player the franchise has hardly ever seen before, but for the perspective of the man himself, this experience is undoubtedly a new one.

“I think it’s going to be different, obviously,” he said. “I want to grow it here and hopefully we can have some success and get more people out and get more support and everything like that, because I think – and everyone says – it’s a great place to play and the fans are really supportive and they love the team.

“When you win, you always get more people to come, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Kessel said that after he was traded, he talked to some players about playing in Arizona and that they gave positive reviews about what things were like out west. He also said his cousin, David Moss, who played for the Coyotes from 2012 to 2015, enjoyed his time with the Coyotes.

“I talked to some of the guys, a lot of guys texted me,” Kessel said. “They said it’s just a great group of guys, great organization. Nothing but positive things to say about the city, the people and living here and playing here. So I’m really looking forward to it.”

Kessel, with general manager John Chayka on his right and team president Ahron Cohen on his left, sat in his new Kachina jersey as Cohen talked about the tickets and “Phil the Thrill” t-shirts the team had sold since it traded for Kessel in June.

Everywhere he’s been before, Kessel has been with other stars. He played with Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Dion Phaneuf and James Van Riemsdyk in Toronto, Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara in Boston — along with others. But in Arizona, he’s almost unquestionably the star of the team on Day 1.

“I don’t really think about that stuff, I don’t really care about any of that,” he said. “I’m here to win. I’m here to, like I said, help grow this team and this organization, and hopefully we can take the next step this year and have some success, and that would be great.”

Chayka believes that despite what all the hubbub would imply, Kessel wouldn’t have to carry the workload on his own for a team that badly needed to add a goal-scorer this offseason.

“We’ve got a lot of good veterans now that can help him carry the load,” Chayka said. “I think we’ve got a lot of young players that are going to look to step up and fill that void as well. Our hope is that it all comes together in a really great way and not any one single player is having to shoulder too much of the burden, I guess.

“I think it’s his kind of his personality to not put too much stock into that. But at the same time, I know it’s something he embraces.”

Perhaps the point of most familiarity for Kessel as he arrives in Arizona — other than the game of hockey itself — is his coach, Rick Tocchet. Tocchet was an assistant in Pittsburgh and got along well with Kessel, and that’s part of what made the trade such a viable option for the Coyotes.

But could that relationship change now that Kessel is a head coach, not an assistant?

“I don’t know how it’s going to work, necessarily,” he said. “Obviously we’re good friends and we get along great. But there’s a business side here. I think our friendship has to almost take a back seat to what we want to accomplish. Obviously there’s going to be times he’s going to be mad at me, he’s going to yell at me. I’m just going to have to take that and respect that, because we want to win.”

The Coyotes finished four points back of a playoff spot in 2018-19. They hope to do better than that in 2019-20, and it’s likely that if they do get over the hump, Kessel will be a big reason why. He’s become the chosen one, the charming winger who comes from a family of athletes and will be relied upon to score goals early and often.

But for Kessel, it’s about doing what he’s done his whole career.

“I think when Rick [Tocchet] came in here, the team is starting to gel a little more,” he said. “They’ve gotten faster. They play a good two-way game. And I think I can help more on the offensive end in the tight games, if you need a goal here or there on the power play, and hopefully I can get one. And win those tight games 3-2 or get the go-ahead goal to 4-2. Hopefully I can succeed in that.”

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