The Pittsburgh Penguins boosted their top-6 forwards by adding Phil Kessel in a trade for no roster players. The Toronto Maple Leafs are holding back $1.25 million per year for the next 7 years, to make matters even better for the Pens. This is a huge coup to get the 2nd highest scoring winger in the past 4 years (behind only some guy named Ovechkin).
Will Kessel play with Sidney Crosby of Evgeni Malkin? Mike Johnston and Jim Rutherford are being coy so far, not wanting yet to pencil Kessel in on a line in the immediate aftermath. And, to their credit, it's still July, so it really doesn't matter.
But either way, there's good reason to believe that Malkin wins.
In the world B.K. (Before Kessel), it was largely assumed Crosby would play with the wingers he played with last year: David Perron and Patric Hornqvist. And there's no real problem with that, the trio did well together, and on the surface are well-balanced.
That left Malkin with....36 year old Chris Kunitz (coming off a bad season) and...Well, not a much. Maybe the hope and prayer that 25-year old Russian signing Sergei Plotnikov steps his game up, makes a perfect transition to the NHL. Or that Pascal Dupuis (who has played 16 NHL games in 22 months due to knee surgery and blood clots). Not exactly a lot to work with.
It wouldn't be the first time Malkin has gotten scraps. In the fabled 2009 Stanley Cup run, Crosby got Kunitz (a February trade addition) and Bill Guerin (a deadline pickup). Leaving Malkin to make chicken salad with Ruslan Fedotenko, Maxime Talbot and end-of-his-rope Petr Sykora.
Crosby got to play with Marian Hossa in 2008 too. Which makes sense: first line center gets first line wingers. Sucks for Malkin, who's on the second line and the Penguins have never had enough skilled wingers to make it work.
Enter, the Phil Kessel trade. Kessel brings possibilities, and that's a great thing for Pittsburgh.
The best idea might be to put Kessel with Crosby, pairing the top center with most skilled right-winger available.
But, it's summer so let's think of possibilities.
Keep the "first" line of Perron and Hornqvist with Crosby.
That frees a "second" line for Kessel, Malkin and a yet to be named left-winger. Can Kunitz rebound and offer his typical play? The forechecking, board-clearing, puck recovering player that he's been in the past. Or maybe the LW could be fresh-faced Sergei Plotnikov, though it might be asking a lot for a pure rookie to adapt to the speed and pace of a top-6 role (not to mention the pressure to produce points that comes along with it).
Or the Pens could go the other route, and play Crosby and Kessel together, which would free Malkin and Hornqvist as running mates. In the summer, it all sounds good.
The best thing is possibilities. Adding a legit skilled player like Kessel gives the Penguins huge possibilities. Best of all, with Kessel-Hornqvist (or Hornqvist-Kessel) it puts Perron back on his preferred left side. The Penguins don't have a similarly perfect option for the other scoring line left winger, but between Kunitz, Plotnikov and even the versatile Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett , hey. Options are good.
No matter how the cookie crumbles, the Penguins will have 2 excellent scoring lines next season.
And then depth line options, probably like Dupuis and Brandon Sutter, both 20-goal candidates. Add in Bennett, Plotnikov, Kunitz to round out the top-9, giving Pittsburgh more depth than most might realize.
Depth is good, options are good, and the Penguins have more of both, thanks to the Phil Kessel trade. The only thing now is to wait for the fall and games to begin.