Can Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins face steep challenges as they aim to improve, and it sure seems like they’re in a tough spot to try to “win” a Phil Kessel trade … or really, break even.

The Athletic’s tandem of Josh Yohe and Michael Russo reports (sub required) that Kessel had been asked, and seemed to lean against, accepting a trade that would send Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman followed up on that in 31 Thoughts, cementing the thought that Kessel vetoed a trade thanks to his no-trade clause, which allows him to potentially reject moves to all but eight other teams. Friedman also wonders if the Arizona Coyotes could be a potential trade fit for Kessel. Again, the theme seems to be that it might not be so easy to trade Kessel, especially if the Penguins can only find trades with teams who aren’t on Kessel’s eight-team “Yes” list.

Still, reporters such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie indicate that a Kessel trade is more a matter of “when, not if,” so let’s consider some of the factors involved, and get a sense of how the Penguins can make this summer a net positive.

Pondering that would-be trade

One can understand why the Penguins would be disappointed that the Wild trade didn’t work out, although that sympathy dissolves when you wonder if Pittsburgh’s basically trying to guilt Kessel into accepting a trade by letting this leak.

(You may notice the word “stubborn” coming up frequently regarding Kessel, even though he’s merely leveraging his contractual rights to that NTC. Who knows if Kessel even wants out?)

All things considered, moving out Kessel (31) and Johnson (32) for two younger players in Zucker (27) and Rask (26) is a boon, and not just because the cap difference is just about even.

While Pierre LeBrun indicates that there’s at least some chance Kessel might change his mind and OK that Wild trade, let’s assume that he would not. There are still elements of this deal that the Penguins should chase.

Kessel + a contract they want to get rid of?

To be more precise, if the Penguins can’t find a good “hockey” trade where the immediate on-ice result is equal (if not an outright win for Pittsburgh), there could be value in saving money. The Penguins have quite a few contracts they should shed, though I’d exclude periodically rumored trade targets Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang because, in my opinion, it would be a really bad idea to trade either of them.

So let’s consider some of the contracts Pittsburgh should attempt to move, either with Kessel or in a separate deals.

  • First, consider Kessel. He’s 31, and his $6.8 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Naturally, every year counts for a Penguins team whose window of contention could slam shut if Malkin and Sidney Crosby hit the aging curve hard … but really, that term isn’t the end of the world.
  • Johnson, 32, is a disaster. While $3.25M isn’t massive, teams are almost always better off with him on the bench than on the ice, and the term is a headache as it only expires until after 2022-23. For all the focus on Kessel’s alleged flaws, getting rid of Johnson would be the biggest boon of that would-be Wild trade. (Especially since I’d argue that Rask has a better chance of at least a mild career rebound than Johnson, as he’s likely to at least have a better shooting percentage than 2018-19’s pitiful 5.5 percent.)
  • Patric Hornqvist is a good player and an even better story as a player who’s gone from “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2005 NHL Draft to a regular 20+ goal scorer and player who scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal. That said, he’s an extremely banged-up 32, making his $5.3M cap hit a bit scary, being that it runs through 2022-23. It’s not as sexy of a story, yet the Penguins should be even more eager to move Hornqvist than they are to move Kessel. (And, again, for the record: they’re both good players … just risky to remain that way.)
  • Olli Maatta, 24, carries a $4.083M cap hit, and his name has surfaced in rumors for years.

There’s a scenario where the Penguins find a parallel trade, combining Kessel and Johnson or another contract they want to get rid of for two full-priced, NHL roster players, like the ones they would have received in Zucker and Rask.

Maybe the Penguins would find some success in merely trying to open up cap space, though?

Theoretically, they could try to move several of the players above while either adding Zucker-types, or perhaps gaining so much cap room that they might aim for something truly bold, like landing a whopper free agent such as Artemi Panarin or Erik Karlsson?

Heck, they could just open up space to pounce on a trade later. Perhaps a lane would open up where they could land someone like P.K. Subban?

Keeping Kessel?

There certainly seems to be some urgency regarding a Kessel trade, yet it remains to be seen if the Penguins can pull a decent one off.

Pensburgh goes over a trade-killing strategy Kessel may deploy, where he’d stack his eight-team trade list with a mixture of teams that are some combination of: a) Pittsburgh’s rivals, who they may not want to trade with, b) cap-challenged teams who might not be able to manage that $6.8M, and c) teams who simply wouldn’t want an aging winger.

If the Penguins view the situation as truly untenable, then it would indeed be rough to be “stuck” with Kessel.

Yet, would it really be that bad of a thing?

Now, sure, Kessel’s game has declined, with there being at least some argument that his defensive shortcomings overwhelm his prolific point production.

On the other hand, Kessel’s sniping abilities really are rare, and there’s something to be said for having a source of reliable goalscoring in a league where that’s still a tough commodity to come by. Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points this past season, managed 34 and 92 in 2017-18, and has been a fantastic playoff performer for Pittsburgh. Sometimes teams risk overthinking things, and the Penguins can be charged with exactly that when you consider their dicey decisions during the last couple of years.

Would it be awkward? Probably, but sometimes NHL teams get too obsessed with harmony instead of results. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to be best friends to win games.

Yes, sure it would be ideal if the Penguins could move along from Kessel while either remaining as strong a team as before, or getting a little better. Especially since Kessel’s value may dip as he ages. But with every other team well aware of the Penguins’ predicament, GM Jim Rutherford could really struggle to find a fair deal. And, even if Rutherford does, it’s no guarantee that Kessel will give it the go-ahead.

The awkward scenario of Kessel staying might not be as bad as it sounds, as he’s delivered on the ice, whether there’s been bad feelings behind the scenes, or not.

***

If you’re anxious about the Penguins trading away Kessel, then this can seem like a grim situation. There’s no denying that it will be a challenge to move him, considering all of the variables. Things get brighter when you ponder other possibilities, particularly the thought that the Penguins might be able to move a problem contract like Jack Johnson’s albatross.

Really, things could work out, even if – like with the building of the Blues and Bruins – it’s easier said than done. Who knows, maybe Rutherford will wield the sort of deft trading skill he showed when the Penguins landed Kessel in the first place?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.