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Penguins trade ideas: Could Colorado catch Kessel’s eye?

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The Pens want to trade Phil, but need to find somewhere he’d be willing to go. Colorado seems mighty appealing

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The only activity going on at this point in the Penguins’ world, other than signing depth defensemen to modest contracts, is the never-ending whirlwind of talk and speculation about Phil Kessel. It’s clear that Pittsburgh wants to center a fresh start for their 2019-20 campaign by moving Kessel. However, Kessel’s 23-team no trade clause has already proven to be a hindrance, as Phil was uninterested in a move to Minnesota due to a lack of talent.

While reports state his interest lies in joining Arizona, that doesn’t make a whole lot of on-ice sense for reasons detailed yesterday.

Now Pittsburgh’s challenge becomes finding a spot that the notoriously prickly Kessel will be interested AND one that could provide them with a combination of value in return AND, ideally, dumping the contract of Jack Johnson along the way.

An ideal spot then would need to have talent to intrigue Kessel plus the cap space available to fit him (and the anchor).

The ideal spot might just be the Colorado Avalanche, who are stocked with exciting offensive talent and per capfriendly boast $37 million currently in available salary cap space. Our fellow SBN blog Mile High Hockey wrote about it yesterday, saying in part:

If Zucker is the main piece the Penguins were going to get back from Minnesota, that might cause an issue for Joe Sakic. Zucker isn’t as good as the Avs best players but he’s a huge step up from their secondary group. If it’s a player like Zucker Pittsburgh is looking for then Colorado is out of luck.

That said, one thing the Avalanche have that would be quite appealing to the Penguins is cap space. Pittsburgh only has about $3.2 million to play with this summer so any Kessel trade would likely have to act as a partial salary dump. The Avalanche could offer one of their young RFAs along with a strong pick or prospect, allowing Pittsburgh to add a roster player while creating a little cap flexibility.

Would a deal centered around Alexander Kerfoot or Nikita Zadorov - who is due new contracts in the $3m-$4m range - be enough to get a deal done? Who knows, but it’s worth a try

Kerfoot would be the player to zero in on, as the Penguins badly need to replace Kessel with a forward. The soon-to-be 25 year old would also offer what they’re looking for in terms of getting younger and better two-way play.

Kerfoot’s advanced metrics aren’t quite as impressive as Zucker’s, but they’re not poor either; he was a positive puck possession player for Colorado last year, and impressive relative to his teammates.

But, like MHH even admits, Zucker is probably a bit better of an all-around player, so perhaps Pittsburgh can extract a bit more value out of Colorado in a trade negotiation to even it out.

Ideally, the Pens could wrangle out the second of the Avs’ first round picks (they select 4th and 16th overall in next month’s draft) but it is easy to imagine that as a team with leverage Colorado would balk at taking Jack Johnson AND having to surrender a first round pick to do so.

Phil’s motivation

As Michael Russo of The Athletic said in the above linked article “Kessel has resigned himself to the belief he will not be back in Pittsburgh”.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie said something similar recently that stuck out as well: “At the end of the day though, Phil Kessel’s going to recognize that the Penguins want to move on. He’s got to be a little bit tuned to that and realize do you really want to make stay in a place where they don’t want you?”

Phil could always continue to be uncooperative with the Pens, but it doesn’t serve anyone to be difficult just to be difficult. Kessel can’t block a trade to every single team, and if Pittsburgh wants to trade him bad enough, he WILL be traded. A notion he no doubt is familiar with, going through a similar circumstance four years ago.

It’s one thing to block a trade to Minnesota, where Kessel correctly assessed there’s not a great or talented core to play with. But he can’t say the same about Colorado.

They have Nathan MacKinnon who is one of the top players in the league. Throw in Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, a young Tyson Jost, whomever is picked fourth overall this year will be in that mix soon too to go along with talented puck movers like Cole Makar, Samuel Girard and Tyson Barrie.

If you’re Phil Kessel and scanning the league for best situations to dive into, could there be a better one than an upstart, young team on the rise like the Avs? That might just get his attention.

Or, of course, he could say no. Maybe he doesn’t like the altitude or the climate or the mountains, who knows. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to play in the Western conference at all, where teams or more spread and travel miles are higher. It’s still well within his rights to give a thumbs down, but for on-ice reasons Colorado has to trump Minnesota or Arizona.

Pens’ motivation

Still don’t really get trading an 80-90 point scorer for a 40-45 point scorer, but the edict is pretty clear they want to build a different team with a new outlook for next season. Kerfoot at least gets them younger. If they can include Jack Johnson, that’s addition by subtraction for on-ice play and getting out of the bad situation they painted themselves into.

If somehow they could trade Kessel+Johnson for Kerfoot+pick/prospect, that opens up a lot of cap space to potentially sign a free agent in the $4-5 million range.

Add those two new players (Kerfoot + FA like Mats Zuccarello or Micheal Ferland) to a top-nine of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jared McCann down the middle with Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad as right wings and Jake Guentzel on the left and that’s a pretty deep and balanced top-nine.

Colorado’s motivation

Kessel gives them a badly needed secondary scoring option and some veteran presence with a reputation of playing big time hockey in the playoffs. The Avs have the cap room to add Johnson, just as they used their cap space to acquire (and then buy out) Brooks Orpik last summer. They could use Johnson as a third pair depth, veteran guy or waive/trade him themselves during the season to get more cap space.

Either way, on a team with so much young talent, adding a veteran Kessel — who is still playing some of his best hockey and producing a ton of points — would give them a new dimension and a lot more offensive muscle. Kessel only having three years left is workable too, as they don’t need to sign MacKinnon during that time, who is on a sweetheart contract for the team. This move essentially uses the savings they have from that contract to add talent.

Hurdles

While there are several realistic points and projections here there are still a bunch of reasons this could be stopped

  • Kerfoot is less than Zucker so the Pens might not feel there’s a good trade fit if they can’t add a bit more
  • Colorado might balk at whatever that “bit more” is in terms of an additional asset and try to use their cap space on a free agent instead of a trade
  • Kessel can always say no

Bottom line

Not too many teams have as exciting a core as Colorado PLUS the cap space to be interested in Kessel. The Avs just might be a sweet spot for all parties. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s definitely worth exploring for the Pens, because heaven knows there are a lot worse options available to them.