Courtesy of Point Park University

Exclusive: Sullivan opens up on relationship with Kessel ☕

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PHIL KESSEL - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Gee, it would have explained so much.

If only Mike Sullivan and Phil Kessel had spent most the past winter hurling insults -- and perhaps an occasional puck -- at each other, the Penguins' relatively lackluster regular season might have been a bit easier to understand.

Certainly, their four-game cameo appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs would have been.

But the reality, Sullivan said this evening, is that while he and Kessel experienced some turbulence during their four seasons together, it wasn't particularly different than what a lot of coaches and players go through.

And it was no more pronounced in 2018-19 than it had been during the seasons that preceded it.

"My relationship with Phil has been the same for four years," Sullivan said. "There were times when Phil and I had our disagreements over the course of our time together, but it wasn't any more than it was in Years 1, 2 or 3. Sometimes, the speculation gets blown out of proportion that we had this real adversarial relationship, where we were at odds, and there was confrontation all the time. Quite honestly, there wasn't.

"Did we have some discussions over the course of the season that one would consider 'confrontational?' Sure. But that's part of the coach-player relationship. I've had that with many players, not just Phil. My relationship with Phil was the same as it was in Years 1, 2 and 3."

Sullivan's interactions with Kessel shifted into past tense late last month, when Kessel was traded to Arizona in a deal that brought forward Alex Galchenyuk to the Penguins.

Kessel, who has not spoken publicly about his relationship with Sullivan since being sent to the Coyotes, is believed to have requested a trade multiple times, although he has denied that.

Sullivan, meanwhile, said he did not ask Jim Rutherford to find a new home for Kessel, but declined to elaborate.

"I'm not going to get into how that whole thing went down, but those decisions are made over the course of time, with a whole lot of input from a whole lot of people," Sullivan said. "But I'd rather not go down that road."

Sullivan did not respond directly to a question about the ways he found Kessel difficult to coach, but acknowledged that their perspectives on Kessel's niche with the Penguins weren't always in sync.

"Let's just say that Phil has strong convictions on how he feels the game should be played, on how he thinks he should be played and utilized in certain situations," Sullivan said. "Sometimes, we were in agreement and other times, we weren't. That's part of what makes Phil the player that he is."

Going to the Coyotes has reunited Kessel with Rick Tocchet who, while working on Sullivan's staff, developed strong ties to Kessel and will now be charged with helping him maximize his production for Arizona.

"Obviously, me and Rick have a great relationship," Kessel said at the time of the trade. "He's a friend of mine, and I think he's a great coach. I want to help him do great things."

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