Phil Kessel finally growing comfortable in spotlight -- at perfect time for Penguins

"I think I am who I am because of what's happened in my life," Phil Kessel said. "I'm happy to be here and be part of this." Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- Welcome to the curious, and in many ways inspiring, story of Phil Kessel.

The journey of the Penguins winger has more turns than straightaways, and if you look simply at the top-five draft pick's raw talent and uncanny ability to elevate his game at crucial times -- rather than focusing on the enigma of his personality -- it's not so hard to see how Kessel has gone from "addition by subtraction" to playoff MVP candidate.

It has been easy over the years to paint Kessel, 28, as a kind of outlier, someone who didn't quite fit into the larger puzzle of his various teams.

And yet this spring, Kessel's name comes up -- often unbidden -- when members of the Pittsburgh Penguins discuss what has made this team unique, and perhaps a team of destiny that sits three wins away from a Stanley Cup championship.

Take Kris Letang.

The Penguins defenseman references Kessel immediately when asked about the closeness of this resilient crew.

"Sometimes you have groups that tend to be separated in different groups," Letang explained. "But Phil, he wants to hang out with everybody, wants to have fun. It kind of brings everybody together when you have a guy who has played that many games in the league."

Phil Kessel? Bringing teammates together?

It's easier to create a persona that describes a player or coach. They are intense, happy-go-lucky, boisterous, moody, thoughtful or cantankerous. The thing is, sometimes they're all of those things, even if it doesn't fit the two-dimensional space we create for them.

Kessel is like that.

At times this spring, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has described Kessel as "misunderstood." But perhaps Sullivan's most telling comment came recently when I asked him about Kessel's evolution as a player with the Penguins.

Sullivan said Kessel is committed to the whole ice and to a complete game. Again, a description that doesn't quite fit the preconceived notion.

"I think he's made great strides over the last couple of months in some of the areas of his game where we've asked him to improve and get better," Sullivan said.

Colorado Avalanche defenseman and native Minnesotan Erik Johnson has known Kessel since he was in his teens. Johnson, too, speaks in terms that don't necessarily fit Kessel's public persona. "He's basically been the best player pretty much on every team he's been on," Johnson said recently. "Just a really likable guy and easy to get along with. Laid-back and fun to be around."

Well, not all the time.

On the ice, Johnson recalled that Kessel made many young defenseman -- including Johnson -- feel very mortal.

"He can hit zero to 100 in a few strides," Johnson said. "I think he put the fear of God in some of us guys. He was very fast and elusive."

It's the speed and the ability to unleash a heavy, accurate shot while in full stride that has always made Kessel so attractive as a player.

"It's his release on his shot. He gets it off quick and it's ridiculously hard and accurate," longtime NHLer and goaltending coach Corey Hirsch said. "He likes the over-the-blocker shot down the wing."

Although Kessel was projected to be a top-three draft pick in 2006 coming out of the University of Minnesota, he ended up dropping to No. 5 and going to the Boston Bruins. He played two seasons with the Bruins, scoring 36 times as a second-year player before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a controversial deal that ultimately landed Boston the second-overall pick in 2010.

Although he scored 30 or more goals four times during six seasons with the Maple Leafs, by last summer he had become a lightning rod for discontent regarding the franchise's inability to drag itself out of a decade-long morass.

He was basically given away to Pittsburgh for a grab bag of aging role players, draft picks and prospects -- and the underlying message was that a bad Toronto team would somehow be better off without its most talented player.

This narrative somehow continued to play like Mozart in Toronto even as the Leafs became the NHL's worst team this past season while Kessel flourished with the Penguins.

In fact, in recent days he is most often seen wearing a broad grin beneath his bearded visage.

"It's been fun," he said the other day. "Obviously, I never got a chance to play in the Stanley Cup like this. I've never been on a team that has felt like this. I don't even know how to describe it, to be honest. I'm so excited to play for the Stanley Cup."

For all the harsh words and the occasional "good riddance" that accompanied Kessel on his way out of Toronto, he has steadfastly refused to criticize the fans, media or team.

The winger admitted that things didn't start out especially well in Pittsburgh and that he wondered if it was going to be another missed opportunity.

"You always wonder about the fit, if you're going to be good, if it's going to work out," he said. "We started off not so hot. By the end of the year we found our way and turned it on."

Kessel, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, became somewhat philosophical when asked about the path his career has taken.

"Throughout your life and your career, little moments shape your life and who you are. I think I am who I am because of what's happened in my life," Kessel said. "I'm happy to be here and be part of this."

Don Lucia, the longtime coach at Minnesota, first ran into Kessel when Lucia's son was playing on a bantam team at a national tournament. "And some guy from Wisconsin scored six goals on them," he said.

That would be Kessel.

When Kessel joined the Gophers' program, he was immensely talented and already starting to shun the attention that came with his skill set.

"When I first met him," Lucia recalled, "he was not someone who would embrace the limelight or wanted the spotlight on him. He just wanted to be one of the guys."

The two remain connected, even though Kessel played just one season there.

"It's like anything, sometimes you get painted a picture that isn't necessarily accurate," Lucia said of the misconceptions about Kessel. "He's obviously an ingredient that Pittsburgh was missing. Look at his playoff numbers. He's averaging over a point a game. That's where you find out who your players are."

According to one NHL GM, the dynamic in Pittsburgh is simply a great fit for Kessel on a number of different levels.

"I think he has been good," the GM said. "Put him in a complementary role where he doesn't have to be the guy."

The funny thing is that in not having to be the guy -- as he had to be in Toronto -- Kessel has in some ways become exactly that for the Penguins. He leads the team this postseason with nine goals and 18 points.

Johnson -- a No. 1 overall draft pick who has also had to shoulder the weight of high expectations and questions about his value -- said Kessel seems to have found a comfort zone away from the tumult of Toronto.

"I'm happy he's having some success in Pittsburgh," Johnson said. "Maybe just having some of the pressure off his shoulders has helped him relax and play some really good hockey."