Phil Kessel’s exit from Arizona was quieter than his exits from Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh. One day, he was skating at the Ice Den in Scottsdale with a large group of Coyotes and NHL players. The next day, he was signing a one-year, $1.5 million free-agent contract with the Vegas Golden Knights, a long-rumored landing spot for the controversial forward who loves to gamble, loves to golf, and loves his old coach Rick Tocchet, who lives in Vegas.

It would be easy to suggest that Kessel exited the Valley with little fanfare because there are so few media members in this market who cover hockey. That’s partially true. The other reason that Kessel’s exit no longer creates ripples is because his game has diminished since his Cup-winning days with the Penguins.

This is not to suggest that Kessel cannot help the Golden Knights. He can still thrive on the power play. He is still an excellent passer (his 44 assists were tied for 47th in the NHL on a lousy Coyotes team) and while his shot was uncharacteristically off the mark last season, his career-low 4.6 shooting percentage is not likely to persist. I think he can be a 20-goal scorer with Vegas.

That said, Kessel is only making $1.5 million for a reason. He will be 35 when the season begins, his skating is no longer as explosive as it once was, and his training methods — long a sore subject with head coaches and conditioning coaches — are catching up with him. This was a low-risk move for Vegas, which needed more offense and power-play help almost as badly as it needed a goaltending upgrade, but the Golden Knights may soon discover that playing Kessel up in the lineup with the skilled center that he needs to thrive has its drawbacks.

None of this outside opinion matters to Kessel, of course. Unlike many athletes whom I have met, when he said he didn’t care what the media and fans thought about him, I believed him.

“People portray him in all these different ways but he can put his suit on and go out the door and it doesn’t bother him,” Tocchet said. “With another person, it would eat at them, they would be pissed off about it, but he really doesn’t care. I think it’s good to have that mechanism because you don’t stress about the stuff you don’t control.”

Phil genuinely doesn’t give a damn about external perception. He doesn’t care about criticism of his game, he doesn’t care about criticism of the aforementioned training methods, and he shrugs off criticism of his consecutive games played streak, which is eight games short of breaking former Coyote Keith Yandle’s record; a feat that should take place on Oct. 25 in San Jose.

There were times when he probably shouldn’t have played, including a groin injury early in his first season in Arizona, but Kessel pushed through it.

“I don’t want to share them, but there have been instances where I probably shouldn’t have played and I did,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m a competitive person. I want to win and I want to help the team. I just love to play the game. I always think I can help so I want to be out there.”

“I’m fortunate. I have been with good coaches who let me see how I feel at game time and let me make the call. I would say it was hard on a couple of occasions, but I know a lot of guys who play through injuries, broken bones and stuff. Sometimes, my injuries have been bad but they’re not the worst thing possible, like a broken leg where you can’t move. If I can move, I’ll be out there.”

Phil Kessel shares a laugh with goaltender Scott Wedgewood after the Coyotes defeated the Blues at Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Nov. 16, 2021 (USA TODAY Sports)

Kessel is nearing the end of a fascinating career. It could end this season or he could string it along on short-term contracts for a few more. 

“I feel good,” he said on Coyotes break-up day after the season as he approached free agency. “I love to play the games and I’m going to try to go as long as I can go.”

Kessel wants to compete for a Cup once more before his career is over, and that is an opportunity that he was never going to have in Arizona.

“Over the last years, you get lost here,” he said via teleconference on Thursday. “People don’t view you any more like you used to be viewed and I don’t think that’s the case.

“There’s a lot of great people here, like the staff and the players… they’re good friends of mine… but it’s tough when you think you’re coming somewhere to win and that’s not the direction they choose to be in. Whenever you plan a team like that that doesn’t necessarily want to win and they want to get younger, it becomes very difficult. It’s going to be nice playing on team that wants to win.”

Changes in the ownership group, management staff and coaching staff clearly played a role in the Coyotes no longer trying to win, but they never really had a chance even when Kessel was here.

While former GM John Chayka’s body of work has been criticized too much in this world of black and white analysis — can anybody really argue with the Darcy Kuemper trade, the Jakob Chychrun contract or even the Clayton Keller contract? — this trade was an ill-conceived move from the get-go.

Forget that the Coyotes sent Alex Galchenyuk and P.O. Joseph to Pittsburgh in the trade. That deal is basically a wash. Galchenyuk never topped eight goals in any season after the trade and Joseph is shaping up to be a third-pair defenseman. The point is that the Coyotes were not ready to add a player such as Kessel (or Taylor Hall) because they did not have the center depth to take advantage of those players; a reality that Kessel quietly pointed out to coaches on several occasions after his arrival. This was a repeat of the Tony Amonte signing; doomed to fail.

Kessel was never going to stick around for Arizona’s rebuild. He would have complained about playing in a 5,000-seat arena and he would have complained about the Coyotes’ less-than-ideal practice set-up at the Ice Den, but that should not suggest that he is a malcontent.  

Kessel often gets a bad rap. Yes, his workout habits were questionable, even in that one season of training harder when he put up 20 goals. Yes, he always voiced his opinion, but it was often done in a humorous way. His teammates loved him and so did Tocchet.

On one Sunday morning early in his Arizona tenure, Kessel lingered for a long time at the grease board inside the locker room at the Ice Den to pore over the day’s practice plan that assistant coach John MacLean had posted. Tocchet couldn’t help noticing or pointing it out to numerous passers-by.

“I’m just trying to see how long you’re keeping us on the fucking ice!” Kessel finally cracked, eliciting deep belly laughs from Tocchet. 

That was Phil. Often under-committed, often hilarious and often mischaracterized because he never let reporters pull back the curtain on his true nature. Many of the criticisms of Kessel are fair, but it’s hard to ignore just how much his Coyotes teammates loved him, even if that cult-hero status baffled him.

“I don’t think I do anything,” he said. “I just think I try to get along with everyone and I like being around them; I like being around the guys. It’s a good group of guys here and we just enjoyed our time, you know?”

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter