Victor Rask

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Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

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The first big trade rumor of the offseason (it is currently the offseason for 29 NHL teams) was centered around a potential blockbuster that would have reportedly seen the Pittsburgh Penguins send Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that was thought to have included Jason Zucker (with the possible inclusion of a Jack Johnson for Victor Rask swap).

The rumored deal was reported by several outlets, including both the Minnesota and Pittsburgh chapters of The Athletic.

It now seems likely that the deal is not going to happen, seemingly because Kessel does not want to waive his no-trade clause to go to a Wild team that is probably pretty far away from a championship.

Based on everything that has come out of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of its Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, there is going to be some change this summer and a Kessel trade will likely be a significant part of that. At this point it is just a matter of when it happens and where he ends up going. It is not a surprise to hear his name in trade speculation, and it should not be a surprise when he eventually goes.

The surprise is that it was the Wild that came the closest to making a deal.

[Related: Can the Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?]

There is no denying that Kessel could probably help them because for all of his flaws he is still an elite offensive player.

He can still score goals, he is still an exceptional playmaker and passer, and any team’s power play could run through him and be better for it. Given that the Wild were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 14th on the power play this past season he is, in theory, the type of player they could use.

But these types of situations do not exist in a vacuum. What is so strange about the Wild making a play for Kessel is that it seems to run counter to everything they did in the second half of last season when they started to strip their team of core players, trading Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle, none of whom were pending free agents or needed to be traded when they were.

The return on that trio was mainly Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, a sequence of transactions that shed some salary off their cap and made the team slightly younger. The Rask, Donato, and Fiala trio is, on average, three years younger than than the Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund trio.

It seemed to be a sign that the Wild were looking to turn the page on a core that hadn’t really won anything, seemed to have reached its ceiling, and was looking to get younger and cheaper. General manager Paul Fenton again emphasized the team’s desire to get younger in his end of the season press conference. Whether or not the moves they made were the right ones remains to be seen (the Niederreiter trade was definitely not the right one) but it was probably a path that had to be taken at some point.

Throwing their hat into the Kessel ring, however, obviously runs counter to all of that.

The rumored trade, assuming it also included the Johnson-Rask swap, would have only saved them $500,000 against the cap and it would have made the team significantly older. Even if a team is looking to rebuild or retool (or whatever they want to call it) it still needs players to put a team on the ice, and you never want to turn down the opportunity to acquire good players when the opportunity presents itself.

But the Kessel pursuit, even if it ultimately failed, creates a number of questions for where the Wild are headed this summer.

Among them…

  1. Is this team, as it is currently constructed, a 32-year-old Phil Kessel away from being a contender in the Western Conference, and especially in a Central Division that includes Nashville, Winnipeg, an emerging power in Colorado, and a current Stanley Cup Finalist in the St. Louis Blues? If it is not, what are you trying to make that type of splash more for? And if you can not get him, are you going to pursue another comparable player?
  2. If you think it is just one of those players away, why the sudden rush to trade a player like Niederreiter (at what was probably his lowest possible value at the time) for an inferior player in Rask, or to make any of the moves you made at the trade deadline? What changed your mind in these past couple of months that you went from selling veteran players under contract to suddenly deciding you need to go get another veteran winger that can score?
  3. Beyond all of that, the most important question might be what this all means for Zucker’s future in Minnesota, as he once again found himself at the center of another trade rumor and another trade that almost happened? Why is one of your best two-way players burning such a hole in your pocket that you are seemingly desperate to trade him or try to use him as a trade chip?

When everything is put together it just seems to be a team that is kind of lost in what it wants or where it wants to go.

On-the-fly rebuilds do not usually work, especially when it is a team that is already lacking high-end talent at the top of the lineup. That path almost always seems to end up resulting in a complete rebuild anyway, only just a couple of years after it should have already started (see, for example, the Los Angeles Kings).

Not only are the Wild lacking in impact players, just about all of their top returning scorers from a year ago (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu) are going to be age 35 or older this upcoming season. Their best days are definitely far in their rear-view mirrors.

Trying to re-tool around mediocrity or aging and declining talent only extends the mediocrity and leaves you stuck somewhere in the middle of the NHL.

Successfully acquiring Kessel might have made the team slightly better (at least offensively), but probably not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way. It just would have added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has too many players like that.

But what it really would have been is just another strange, questionable transaction after a season full of strange, questionable transactions that didn’t seem to be necessary.

Where the Wild go from here this summer will be seen in the coming weeks, but the continuing trend of questionable transactions should be a cause for concern for the team’s fans when it comes to this new front office.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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.

Wild trade Nino Niederreiter to Hurricanes for Victor Rask

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The NHL’s trading season has officially arrived.

We knew the Carolina Hurricanes were going to be one of the teams to watch over the next few weeks as the trade deadline approaches, and they made a fairly significant deal on Thursday afternoon when they sent forward Victor Rask to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for forward Nino Niederreiter.

There is no salary retained in the deal and is strictly a straight up one-for-one trade.

Both players still have three years remaining on their current deals, with Rask counting $4 million against the cap and Niederreiter carrying a $5.2 million hit against the cap.

At first glance this is an extremely curious move by the Wild because it is really difficult to see where they get better here other than saving a minimal amount of salary cap space and picking up a player that is one year younger.

When it comes to production and what actually happens on the ice, this would seem to be a step backwards.

Rask has been limited to just 26 games this season where he’s scored just a single goal and recorded five assists. That all comes after a disappointing 2017-18 season where his production dropped across the board and saw him record the worst numbers of his career. He is 25 years old, never tallied more than 48 points in a season and has seen his play regress over the past two years.

While Niederreiter has also been stuck in a down year, he has still been the more productive player over the past two seasons and is probably a better fit for what the Hurricanes need — A player that, in theory, can finish and score goals.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

“We’re excited to welcome a proven goal-scorer and veteran presence in Nino Niederreiter,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said in a team statement. “We wish Victor the best moving forward and thank him for his efforts on the ice and in the community during his time in Raleigh.”

Niederreiter has pretty consistently scored at a 25-goal pace over 82 games in each of the past four years while also playing a really good two-way game where he can drive possession and control the puck.

Rask has topped the 20-goal mark once in his career, and that was four years ago.

The Hurricanes have been on a bit of a roll over the past two weeks but still sit seven points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That is a pretty big mountain standing in front of them, but with Niederreiter signed beyond this season and being an upgrade it is a perfectly reasonable trade for a team in this situation to make.

The Wild, on the other hand, are one of the teams in the jumbled Western Conference wild card mix and just seemingly made themselves worse. Not significantly worse, but definitely worse. That is not something you ever want to do, especially when you are not even guaranteed a playoff spot.

Perhaps there is another shoe to drop and another trade to be made, especially with a little bit more salary cap space at their disposal. But in a vacuum this is a fairly bizarre trade for a team desperately fighting for a playoff spot to make.

Unless they are wildly optimistic about a chance of scenery and a fresh start sparking some sort of bounce back for Rask. There is not much evidence to suggest that is a strong possibility.

More: Who has the inside track in Western Conference Wild Card race?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canes coach Peters making tweaks with emphasis on being more dangerous offensively

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The Carolina Hurricanes endured a rough campaign in 2014-15 and their biggest overall issues surrounded their offense. Now going into his second season as head coach, Bill Peters hopes to address that.

“We’re going to tweak a few things from what we did last year, with an emphasis on being a more dangerous team offensively,” Peters told The News & Observer.

The Hurricanes had a number of key players that didn’t live up to expectations in that regard last season. Alexander Semin, who was bought out this summer, is the most obvious example, but Eric Staal led the team with just 54 points, which was his lowest total in an 82-game campaign since 2003-2004. Meanwhile, Jeff Skinner went from scoring 33 goals in 2013-14 to 18 last season and Jordan Staal was limited to 46 contests due to a fractured fibula.

There’s some hope that this season can be better though, in part because 20-year-old Elias Lindholm and 22-year-old Victor Rask may be ready to take another step forward.

As for the system itself though, blueliner Justin Faulk — who ranked second in the Hurricanes’ 14-15 scoring race — rose to its defense.

“It’s not a matter of trusting the system. It’s a matter of trusting the players to make sure everyone that’s in the lineup that night is ready to go,” Faulk said. “The system is there, it works. Guys believe that.”

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite changing their head coach and general manager, the 2014-15 season was more of the same for the Carolina Hurricanes.

For the sixth season in a row (and eight of their last nine campaigns), the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs. Much like 2013-14, they were in the cellar of the East.

Granted, there are murmurs of hope; the Hurricanes subtly improved toward the end of the year and Carolina showed some signs of defensive improvement under head coach Bill Peters. Such patter sounds like baby steps in the grand scheme of things.

Despite some significant expenditures on that side of the puck, Peters identified scoring as a particularly glaring issue.

“We like where we are in terms of being able to take a step forward; it will depend on us having the ability to score,” Peters said, according to NHL.com. “We have to find a way to score more at 5-on-5.”

Off-season recap

GM Ron Francis faces tougher decisions soon, yet he was fairly busy this summer.

It was costly, but the organization cut ties with Semin via a pricey buyout.

In trading Anton Khudobin to Anaheim and acquiring Eddie Lack from Vancouver, Francis gives himself flexibility with Ward, as Lack could end up the No. 1 or even combine for a platoon situation. Swapping with Anaheim also netted an expensive upgrade to Carolina’s needy defense in James Wisniewski.

Optimists may cross their fingers that the Hurricanes will opt for a youth movement. Blueline prospect Noah Hanifin joins Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk, Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy as intriguing young talents who aren’t in limbo like Jordan Staal or Jeff Skinner.

***

This time it really does feel like a fork-in-the-road season for the Hurricanes, even if it also seems like the organization has been procrastinating when it comes to making difficult (yet crucial) decisions.

Will things finally start to turn Carolina’s way in 2015-16?