LAS VEGAS — There are 357 players who have participated in 1,000 or more NHL games.
But of those 357, only one has done that consecutively. That would be Phil Kessel, the league’s current ironman who played for the Vegas Golden Knights Thursday against one of his former teams — the Arizona Coyotes — and played in his 1,000th straight game.
Think about that. For 1,000 nights, Kessel skated and participated in an NHL game. Not illness, injury or even the birth of his child kept him off the ice. It’s a truly amazing accomplishment, one that the hockey world should rightly celebrate.
“A thousand in a row, that’s a lot of games; It’s kinda crazy,” Kessel said prior to making history at T-Mobile Arena, where his family was in attendance for the special moment among a sellout crowd of 17,708. “Obviously you’ve got to be a little lucky to get that. But it’s pretty cool.
“I don’t know how I did it, but I did it.”
Actually, Kessel eclipsed 1,000 games played a few years ago. After Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Coyotes, for who he played 208 games over three seasons, the 35-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin’s overall total now stands at 1,222 and counting.
“I’ll remember obviously that we won,” Kessel said of the memories he’ll carry from Thursday. “It’s nice to get past it and move on.”
The question is, how much longer will the count go on?
In his 18 games with the Golden Knights, Kessel has three goals, four assists and seven points while playing predominantly on the third line with Brett Howden and either rookie Paul Cotter or veteran Michael Amadio. He had started the season with Jack Eichel and Reilly Smith but found himself shifted down when coach Bruce Cassidy shook things up in late October.
Kessel never complained. He’s happy seeing his name on the lineup card. Where he’s slotted or how many shifts he gets doesn’t bother him. His ice time is predicated on how well he plays.
Right now, that average TOI is 12.47, ninth among the team’s 13 forwards who have seen action in 10 or more of Vegas’ 18 games played this season and fewest among those who have participated in all 18 contests. His two hits are the fewest on the team. He has just seven blocked shots to date. He’s not part of the penalty kill and has made limited appearances on the power play. Thursday, he played nearly 16 minutes and within that came 5:23 in ice time on the VGK power play.
So why keep Kessel around?
Several reasons. For starters, he’s working relatively cheap. His salary is just $1.5 million. And for a team that is constantly up against the salary cap, the Knights are getting fairly good value in a player they know will show up ready to play every game.
And while Kessel would not doubt like to contribute more offensively, he’s playing with linemates who are not offensively gifted to the extent Eichel is. Howden and Amadio have each generated just a goal and an assist. Cotter, who recently replaced Amadio on the ice after being a healthy scratch for 11 games, has two goals and two assists.
Hockey is not the kind of sport that lends itself to singular domination unless your name happens to be Orr or Gretzky. Even the game’s top players rely on their teammates. So Kessel shouldn’t be expected to be putting up huge numbers when he’s playing on a third line and averaging less than 13 minutes a night.
But he contributes to the team by using his hockey IQ. He’s in the right place at the right time more often than not. And even though his plus-minus is -1, Kessel doesn’t present a huge liability, regardless of what his analytics numbers might indicate.
He sees the ice remarkably well. He’s an excellent passer and possessor of the puck. He can still make plays and still has a good shot.
More important, he has been a good teammate and has helped change the dynamic of the Vegas dressing room. The guys like him and Kessel likes them. He remains an intense competitor while willing to laugh at himself. You don’t find those kind of character traits too often these days.
And it’s not like there’s someone who is waiting in the wings who is better. Nolan Patrick remains on LTIR and he may never play an NHL game ever again. If Amadio or Jake Leschyshyn were significantly better than Kessel, they’d be playing ahead of him. Same for Brendan Brisson, the organization’s first-round draft pick from 2020 who is struggling in Henderson of the AHL with just three goals and three assists in 13 games and isn’t close to being ready to play NHL minutes on a regular basis.
So for those who’d like to see Kessel benched or released in the aftermath of Thursday’s historic milestone, don’t hold your breath. He’s here and he’s not going anywhere. Which is how it should be.
But Kessel deserved to be celebrated Thursday. It’s an amazing accomplishment, especially in this day and age where injuries seem to be commonplace for virtually everyone who dons an NHL sweater.
“It’s phenomenal to see what he’s done,” said teammate William Carrier, who scored a nifty goal 31 seconds into the third period that would prove to be the game winner. “I don’t think we’ll see that again.”
When Kessel was asked if his record will stand forever, he shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If someone breaks it someday, great. I don’t care.”
That’s fine. He’ll let the rest of the hockey world care for him.