As the off-season continues to ramp up, so too have the rumors surrounding the future of Phil Kessel. TSN’s Frank Seravalli made Kessel the feature of his listing on TSN Trade Bait around the league today.
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford put the NHL on alert when he said in an end-of-season interview that, “there could be changes, big changes,” to Pittsburgh’s core.
One month after the Penguins’ sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, Phil Kessel is most likely the first player to go if Rutherford is going to blow it up.
That’s why two-time Stanley Cup champion Kessel is No. 1 on the first TSN Trade Bait board of the spring.
“Every possibility is on the table right now,” Rutherford told reporters.
Kessel, 32, was in the Conn Smythe conversation during both Penguin runs. Only 12 NHL players have more points than Kessel’s 174 over the last two seasons. There are three years remaining on his contract at a $6.8 million AAV, with the Maple Leafs still retaining $1.2 million.
But the Kessel Experiment may have run its course in the Steel City.
Rutherford admitted that there were issues in the Penguins’ dressing room this season and Kessel’s friction with coach Mike Sullivan and even linemate Evgeni Malkin has been evident. The Penguins’ Kessel Whisperer, assistant coach Rick Tocchet, left to be the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes two seasons ago.
Because of that friction and other chemistry issues, Rutherford said this season was actually Sullivan’s best coaching job with the Penguins.
Kessel’s scored 174 points in the 164 games since Tocchet has been gone — compared to 129 points in the 164 games Tocchet was a coach in Pittsburgh— but the “whisperer” narrative is never going to go away.
One piece of information that’s a lot more logical is that Rutherford wants to shake up the team. Real changes will be made This is also the third year in a row Kessel’s name has been tossed around by the media as a potential player to be traded, so make of that what you will. Kessel is just the type of player that always is going to be talked about getting traded, and he has been traded twice in his career already, so it’s certainly possible that he is moved in the name of changing things just to change them, however unwise that might be.
Most of the doubts stem from that we still have have major issues about how cooperative Kessel will be when it comes to his restrictive partial no trade clause. This continues to go unacknowledged in this and most other articles about a possible Kessel trade which leaves one to wonder if all these ideas are coming from a place of ignorance of the player’s motivation, as well as the team that needs to get back value to remain a competitor. A point-per-game winger can’t just be discarded without care if the goal is to stay a good team.
Also for the Pens, defenseman Olli Maatta checked in at #13 on Seravelli’s list of players most likely to be move. The Finnish defenseman could probably stand to be higher still. As a healthy scratch in the team’s final three playoff games Maatta almost certainly will be dealt this summer away from Pittsburgh as the team looks to create a new lineup for next year.
One interesting name on Seravelli’s list is Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild. We know Minnesota was an available team for Kessel to be traded in 2015. (We don’t know if that has changed since).
Zucker had a down year in 2018-19, but in 2017-18 he scored 33 goals and added 31 assists. Zucker’s possession game is strong (he was a 53.2% Corsi For% and a RelCor of +3.4 last season). He sounds like a player the team would like, per his scouting report for The Hockey News, “plays with a great combination of skill and energy when on top of his game. Skates very well can put constant pressure on opponents. Is also responsible in his own zone. Boasts plenty of goal-scoring ability.”
Rutherford has also paid lip service to the 2019 draft, and per The Athletic’s Rob Rossi may be seeking further high picks if possible. Minnesota owns the 12th overall pick in the draft.
Say a proposed deal goes down that would send Kessel and Maatta to Minnesota for Zucker and Minnesota’s first rounder going back to Pittsburgh.
Which side says no?
Minnesota gets a high-end offensive player with local ties to the market, as well as what should be a solid 24-year old second pair defenseman. The Pens get younger up front and would also save about $5.38 million on the salary cap for next season. They could dump that money into free agents, or use it to retain salary on a trade for Jack Johnson and try to go the addition by subtraction route.
Maybe the value isn’t quite right for either or both sides, but from a 30,000 foot view it seems to make some sense on the surface. This also is probably a best case scenario for Pittsburgh to get actual value for Kessel instead of pawning him off in a buyer’s market created by his contract like Toronto had to do.
The motivation of Minnesota and new GM Paul Fenton is the big unknown and the biggest potential “no go”. Would they be interested in Kessel enough to bring him in? Would they draw a harder line in negotiations, maybe a one-for-one swap of Kessel and Zucker? If so, and if the Pens really are hellbent on sending out the talented winger, that might just be the best spot available in his contract to do so.
Regardless, as this summer heats up so too will media speculation that Kessel will be on the move. At this point, Pens fans will be waiting for that shoe to drop and guarding emotions to hope the team doesn’t make a major downgrade by doing so.