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Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, City of No Tomorrow

The Penguins traded for Phil Kessel, the future be damned.

Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

The Penguins have made a high-profile trade for a star NHL player. They'll pay him a lot of money.

It's Groundhog's Day in Pittsburgh.

Groundhog's Day, because we've seen this sort of thing before. Because we'll figure out the payment when the bill comes due. But more than anything, because this is the deal that really bakes the mold on the Penguins as a franchise for which tomorrow never comes.

So much of what got the former management team fired last summer was their constant mortgaging of future talent and present depth in the quest for other stars to prop up their current stars. It was supposed to change with the incoming regime.

Replenished prospect depth. Proper valuation of draft picks. Avoiding the top-heavy cap payroll at the NHL level. All of it.

It didn't change last year, when the Penguins made six in-season deals (in addition to the offseason Neal trade). It couldn't change at this year's draft, where the team held all of four draft selections -- a league low.

It will emphatically never happen, not ever under this regime or with this core of players, now that GM Jim Rutherford and his staff upstaged the start of free agency with the biggest trade of the NHL offseason.

Phil Kessel to the Penguins, if you hadn't heard.

Great for now, and hopefully most of what now constitutes most of the rest of the Sidney Crosby era. Crosby is signed through 2025. Kessel, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, through 2022. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is signed until 2019, the nearest expiration of any of the team's core of stars.

That's a lot of salary, a ton of years for the core of any team. It's a deadly group to start with, even if filling out the depth around them will once again prove difficult-if-not-impossible.

But, it once again comes at the cost of the future in pursuit of the now:

  • Following the Kessel deal, Pittsburgh will now have traded their first-round rights in four of nine drafts from 2008 to 2016.
  • Three of the six first-round selections they made in those years (they had two first-rounders in 2012) have already been traded.
  • Barring a playoff miss in the coming season, they'll have gone two straight years without a first-round selection by the end of the 2016 Draft.
  • Of the players for whom the Penguins moved a first-round pick since 2008, a group that includes Marian Hossa and Jarome Iginla, only David Perron and Phil Kessel remain with the team.

Add those marks to the pile of lower-level draft picks the team has moved over the years and the lack of depth on the NHL roster is a pretty easy A-to-B.

This time last week, Rutherford and his team of executives would have been run off a plank for helping to leave the team's future so helpless, what with having just four draft picks to stake their claim in the highest-profile draft class in a decade.

Now, they're the stars of free agency and haven't awarded a free agent contract north of $2 million yet.

Yes, Kessel is another in a long line of headline trades in the Crosby era. Spanning two management teams, no NHL club has put together the seismic trade record the Penguins have produced in the last decade. The effect on team depth is undeniable. The club has 53 percent of its cap space allocated to just five players -- the high side of the acceptable percentage for a Cup-contending core.

And, yes, the Penguins gave up five assets in return for three. They traded away the one forward prospect who was supposed to be the salve on eight years of Ray Shero's defense-first draft strategy. They improved in the present at the cost of the Leafs improving with their assets down the road.

But it works.

The deal is kind of great for Pittsburgh, and that's no slight. This could have been a train wreck maneuver without Rutherford's shrewd hand.

There's no ignoring what the team has accomplished in the short term. They landed one of the game's premier goal scoring forwards with contract certainty at a reduced cap hit ahead of his age-28 season. They did it without trading either of their can't-miss defense prospects. They even cleaned out one of their onerous depth contracts in Nick Spaling in the process.

Spend enough time in the echo chamber of hockey analytics and you'll start to believe that Jim Rutherford, a GM with executive experience spanning parts of three decades, would be taken by a 28-year-old stats wiz and a former player serving his first role as a team-builder.

Rutherford had a lot of penance to pay following his Lovejoy moment, and it appears he has. So good on him, and good on the Penguins. They improved their top-six and power play options in one fell swoop and did so without moving the biggest trade asks on their roster.

Kessel is now part of the core. His prime is now. The Penguins' Cup window is open. As many have pointed out, it does no good to wait out a team's best prospects if it means seeing them shine when Crosby and Malkin are pushing their mid-30s.

The Pensblog summed it up nicely,

The Penguins received a current top-six winger by giving up a potential future top-six winger and a wild card potential pick.

The Penguins received production and certainty for the next few years to capitalize on their window in exchange for two uncertain potential pieces of an uncertain future.

Who needs to draft well when you can still acquire the talent you wish you had?

Does this help the team five years from now? The opposite. If the Penguins' most vocal detractors wanted, really wanted the likes of Malkin traded to open up depth and cap flexibility before this move, imagine the ammunition they'll have a few years from now.

But that's a few years from now. In Penguins' time, an eternity.

They'll cross that bridge when they trade for it.

I'm on