It has been a while since the Phil Kessel trade rumor mill started to spin, but it was back in action this week when Elliotte Friedman mentioned in his latest 31 thoughts column that the Penguins had “tested the market” on their top winger.
This does not mean they are looking to trade him.
This does not mean they are going to trade him.
This does not mean they want to trade him.
At most it just means they kicked the tires on what they could get back for him if they decided to go that route. Quite honestly, if Jim Rutherford in his early season fury was going to make a truly significant trade to shake up an underpeforming roster, Kessel is almost certainly the first player out of the core that would have gone.
Still, when it comes to a Phil Kessel trade I will believe it when I actually see it. Not only because he makes the Penguins better (and they know it), but also because it would be nearly impossible to get equal value back in return (they almost certainly know that, too).
There is also absolutely no precedent for such a trade to take place in the middle of the season.
On Wednesday night a friend texted me and asked what a “good” return would be for Kessel in a hypothetical trade, and after thinking about it for a few minutes I had no good answer because I couldn’t even think of a parallel trade to compare it to.
Think of the situation here. You have an elite offensive player on a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender. They may not be a Stanley Cup contender right now in the standings, but that is 100 percent how they view themselves. It is also how they should view themselves. In the past three years they have won two Stanley Cups, won a playoff series the year after that, and entered the season with championship expectations. They have elite, Hall of Fame level players on the roster. As long as they are there still performing at high levels, this team is in win-now mode.
Now ask yourself this question: How how many contending teams can you recall trading a player as significant and as good as Kessel in the middle of the season.
It just does not happen.
Let’s take a little look at this.
Since entering the NHL at the start of the 2006-07 season, Kessel has been one of the top-15 point producers in the league (as of this posting he is 13th, right between Henrik Zetterberg and Corey Perry). If you go as far as the top-30 point producers on that list, only 10 of them have ever been traded at any point in their careers, including Kessel (who has been traded twice, both in the offseason). The others are Joe Thornton, Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Jarome Iginla, Thomas Vanek, Martin St. Louis, Jason Pominville, Rick Nash, and Marian Hossa.
The ones that were traded in-season were mostly playing for teams going nowhere, were on the downside or their careers, or set to become free agents after the season. Or a combination of the three.
The best comparable trade, and even if this is stretching, might be when the Bruins sent Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks early in the 2005-06 season. The Bruins had made the playoffs in each of the previous three seasons, winning their division twice, but had never made it out of the first round. Thornton, as the captain of that team, took most of the blame for it. On Nov. 30, 2005, he was traded to the Sharks for the cringe-worthy return of Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau. It was a huge move because not only was Thornton just entering the prime of his career, he was already a superstar in the league and under contract for three more seasons.
Boston, at the time, rejoiced.
This would start more than a decade long trend of Boston trading all-star level talent because they didn’t fit the Bruins way (Thornton, Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, etc.).
The Bruins, without Thornton, would miss the playoffs in 2005-06 and 2006-07 before finally returning in 2007-08. They would not get out of the first round until 2008-09.
Thornton would go on to win the MVP award in his first season with the Sharks.
Martin St. Louis might be another close comparable, as he was still one of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top players during the 2013-14 season and under contract for another full season. The Lightning were also on their way to the playoffs and a team clearly on the rise in the Eastern Conference. The catch here, of course, is that he wanted traded and requested his way out of Tampa Bay, eventually getting sent to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan and a couple of draft picks (including two first-rounders).
But the rest?
When Marian Hossa was traded by the Atlanta Thrashers at the 2008 trade deadline he was an elite, two-way player in the league, but he was also set to be a free agent after the season and Atlanta — a team going nowhere — was not going to re-sign him. It was an easy call to trade him. The return turned out to be nothing as Atlanta sent him and Pascal Dupuis to the Penguins for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round draft pick. Even if the Penguins had given up that return for just Dupuis they still would have won the trade in the long-run.
Iginla wasn’t traded until he was 35, in a contract, year, and on a bad team.
Vanek was traded out of Buffalo early in the 2013-14 season when he was set to become a free agent after the season and the Sabres were in the process of tearing their organization to the ground.
Carolina traded Staal late in the 2015-16 season when he was on his way to free agency and looked to be a shell of his former self.
This is the reality.
Players that score the way Kessel does not typically get traded. Ever. On the rare occasion they do, it is usually because of a contract issue, or because they are broken down veterans at the end of their careers, or because their team stinks, or because they play for the Boston Bruins.
Kessel and the Penguins fit none of those categories.
This is not to say he will not ever be traded by the Penguins, and who knows, maybe they hit another slump over the next couple of weeks and Rutherford gets mad again and does something truly outrageous and damaging. But I’m not expecting it, and neither should you.