As astute and long-time Pensburgh readers are no doubt aware, one of the biggest reasons this blog has been anti-trade Phil Kessel isn’t just because it’s difficult to replace such a productive winger that performs as well consistently as Phil does. Even though that is plenty good a reason to start with.
Beyond that, the same way the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Phil Kessel for only two assets of value (then prospect Kasperi Kapanen plus a 2016 first round draft pick, that was lottery protected at that) is the same reason why trading Kessel out isn’t likely to yield an acceptable or worthy return.
That reason, of course, is his 23-team no trade clause.
Let’s break down the news from yesterday that broke about the details on the reports between the Pens and Minnesota Wild.
Per Josh Yohe, the Penguins approached Phil days earlier this week and asked him if he would waive his NTC to go to Minnesota.
The deal has been on the table for days. It is believed the only holdup at this time is Kessel, who has the right to veto the trade.
First, let’s unpack that with an interesting aside. In 2015 it was reported by no less a source than Bob McKenzie that Minnesota was on Phil’s “ok to be traded” list. McKenzie also reported that the whole point of Kessel’s list was that it was built with the intention of listing teams Toronto would be UNABLE to trade him to:
the list was ostensibly put together probably to places that: A) He would be prepared to play if he had to, and B) places that are salary capped out... I think that the list - for the most part - was designed to make his modified no-trade as close to a full no-trade as possible
That list was foiled though in 2015 with just how desperate Toronto was to move Kessel even if it meant a substandard return. And the Maple Leafs were only able to trade Kessel by retaining 15% of his salary for six years and take on $2.1 million of an overpaid Nick Spaling. (If that doesn’t give you a little shiver on what it might take for Pittsburgh to get Kessel out the door if they’re determined to trade him no matter what, it probably should).
So now the fact that Minnesota is NOT a part of the eight team “ok to trade list” shows that Kessel (and more specifically his agents) have again approached building his list to again make it difficult to be traded.
That presents a huge issue for Pittsburgh in getting Kessel out the door, if he won’t cooperate their options become obviously very limited and now we’re seeing a real time example of that coming to light with a hesitance at best (and delayed rejection at worst) to complete a trade.
Pittsburgh and Minnesota advanced deep enough into negotiations that the Pens wanted to get Phil’s approval so they would know to continue and possibly/probably finalize the trade. Per Pierre Lebrun, it doesn’t look like this is happening.
What I'm hearing: Kessel at the moment is not leaning towards waiving his NTC to go to Minnesota but that doesn't mean it ultimately couldn't happen eventually. However, there are a few clubs on his 8-team YES list that have contacted Pittsburgh so we'll see where that goes... https://t.co/i41y6sIIU3— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 23, 2019
Lebrun does mention this could change, but considering how Yohe pretty much directly says the only reason this isn’t a done deal yet is because Phil hasn’t allowed it to happen, nothing has changed yet. If status quo remains, the deal is going to be dead and it’s only a matter of a very finite amount of time before Minnesota and/or Pittsburgh move onto other options.
And those other options for Pittsburgh would have to be to focus on talking to teams that Kessel can’t block. Since he apparently will not be jumping quickly to waive to go to Minnesota — a place where he has ties and a good friend in Ryan Suter, it probably should be an assumption now that Kessel isn’t likely to waive to go anywhere he doesn’t have to.
Thus, that’s why Phil Kessel trade talk is always more complicated than appears on the surface. It’s easy to shout “PHIL TO ARIZONA!” or “KESSEL FOR SUBBAN”, or even like we did before these recent rumors broke “What about Phil to Minny” but that’s ignoring that Phil has to cooperate and do so in a timely manner.
Anyone who knows anything about Phil Kessel knows he’s a man who marches to the beat of his own drummer, and voluntarily being cooperative with hockey management has seemingly never been a very high priority for him.
Let’s be clear though — not being accommodating to what Rutherford wants to do is Kessel’s contractual right. It’s a business and it’s a huge decision that will effect his career and personal life tremendously. The Penguins honored that clause and knew about it when they acquired him. They also knew that two previous teams soured on his behavior and attitude moreso than his on-ice play, which has really never been in doubt.
Still, refusing a deal to Minnesota — or at least not being on board with and basically halting all progress, which for all intents and purpose is refusing — shows just how much power Kessel has in this process.
Contrast this approach Kessel has with the very gracious and accepting move made two years ago by Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury knew his time in Pittsburgh was done, and was interested in moving on so he allowed the Pens to do what they needed to do. Fleury had more professional motivation to leave though, since he wasn’t the starting goalie any longer. Besides that reason, the point is he WAS motivated to waive his no movement clause and move on. Kessel has never showed any interest, in Pittsburgh or in Toronto, to comply similarly.
Obviously it’s clear general manager Jim Rutherford wants to move on. But his first choice team to negotiate with isn’t going anywhere at the moment. That’s a big blow to landing even close to fair value for such an effective player. As noted by Lebrun’s tweet above, they have fielded calls from “a few clubs” interested. Clubs, as in plural, is a good sign for the Pens. That suggests at minimum some level of interest from around the league, a one-team “bidding war” isn’t much of a war at all.
“Rutherford continues to talk to other teams about Kessel,” Lebrun also tweeted in a follow up thought. “It’s a question of when not if for Kessel to be dealt but where exactly remains TBD.”
There’s no doubting that at this point. But now the question that Penguins fans nervously have to ask themselves becomes: is Rutherford prepared to trade Kessel under any conditions, even if it means getting as little on-ice return as Toronto?
Because if Kessel does stand in the way of a deal to Minnesota, it only stands to reason that eventual trade that Pittsburgh gets from a team not blocked by his NTC won’t be as good as the offer from the Wild.