In comments made to Josh Yohe today, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford almost sounded like a politician making a concession speech in admitting that he probably won’t be trading Phil Kessel this summer after all.
“I think that’s the way things are headed at this point in time,” Rutherford told The Athletic. “I expect Kessel will probably play for Pittsburgh next season.”
The Penguins have shopped him at various points during the past two summers and appeared destined to move him this offseason. They are dealing with major salary cap issues and, since trading Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin isn’t in Rutherford’s plans, trading Kessel seemed a foregone conclusion, especially given the talks with the Wild.
So, what happened?
“First of all, he’s a good player,” Rutherford said. “He’s been a good player for us. It’s not as if we have to trade him.”
Kessel has a partial no-trade clause. There are only eight teams in which the Penguins can trade Kessel without him balking. The star right winger wanted nothing to do with playing in Minnesota.
“You have to understand that he has a no-trade clause and a lot of leverage,” Rutherford said. “In situations like this, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the team. That’s just the way it is. So, at this point, it looks to me that he will return at this season. That’s how I’m proceeding moving forward.”
Yohe’s article is worth a read, he takes Rutherford’s temperature on potential extensions for Matt Murray, Justin Schultz and Mike Sullivan this summer (the cool response about the coach I found quite interesting) and has good stuff. He also had some thoughts on why the Evgeni Malkin “rumors” were a bit overblown and reached the natural conclusion of Geno not really close at all to any sort of trade.
Shifting gears, the public admission that Kessel likely will be back is big for the Penguins as a team. Obviously any trade of Kessel would have resulted in a lesser team, even the rumored near-trade with the Wild to acquire Jason Zucker straight up for Kessel ends up leaving a lot of points on the table from a Pittsburgh perspective, and that was likely the best they were going to get with Zucker being younger and a better player away from the puck.
Rutherford admitted to clear cap room, his vaunted “best” defense would likely have to change. Olli Maatta and Jack Johnson figure to make the most sense to move on, since both were scratches in the playoffs, neither were very good last season and both have significant salary cap hits.
Ideally Rutherford can spin some of the magic he’s demonstrated in the past to get himself out of a corner he’s painted himself into by signing a bad player like Jack Johnson in the first place.
That said, the biggest bullet point by far is that the Pens have realized they have to live with Phil Kessel a little longer. This is a good time to come to that realization, so that now they can try to build the team around him.
When Pittsburgh was winning Stanley Cups earlier this decade, it was Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel split on different lines from each other, and away from Sidney Crosby to create a peerless 1-2-3 punch of team’s having to face Sid then Geno then Phil in a relentless wave of talent attacking them.
The Pens challenge this off-season should be to find the supporting players for these stars. Other than Kessel, what’s the last really good winger Malkin had to work with? Similarly, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin are gone and haven’t really been matched either.
It remains to be seen just how much (if any) value guys like Maatta and/or Johnson would have in a trade, but flip one of them for a top-nine left winger on a similar contract and add to Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Malkin, Jared McCann, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad and Kessel and that’s a pretty good top-nine group — without even mentioning Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese.
We all know the Penguins are an older team, so keeping a 32-year old point-per-game winger like Kessel actually fits perfectly with the mission statement of where this team is right now. Surely Rutherford had his reasons to want to change up the group and shake up the roster, but Kessel’s restrictive no trade clause has stymied that effort. Which might end up being a blessing in disguise since it’s tough to improve the team by inherently making it less skilled.
The Pens can’t trade Kessel, so now the plan has to shift as to how to best get back to winning with him.