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Free agent Phil Kessel unlikely to return to Penguins, per report

The former Penguin and ongoing Ironman has yet to sign with a team for the 2023-24 season.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators - Game Six Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Phil Kessel is still a free agent, but he has every intention of playing next season.

Although there is some “percolating interest from NHL teams” in signing Kessel for the 2023-24 season— with a full contract, not a professional tryout offer, according to TSN’s Chris Johnston— The Athletic’s Josh Yohe believes the Pittsburgh Penguins are not among those interested.

In response to a question about Kessel joining Kyle Dubas’ overhauled roster next season, Yohe answered, “I just don’t see it.”

“If Kessel had aged better, maybe,” Yohe wrote. “But for all that we love to joke about ‘everyman Phil,’ etc., let’s be honest, he doesn’t take care of himself physically the way others do, and that’s why we’ve seen such a substantial regression in his recent play.”

Kessel recorded 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points in 82 games last season. Those are solid numbers for a bottom-six winger, but the lowest of Kessel’s career since his rookie 2006-07 campaign.

The winger, who turns 36 on October 2, told teams via Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in August that he is willing to sign with a team even if he does not play in every game.

That’s a pretty major concession from a player who boasts the most consecutive regular-season games in NHL history with 1,064 straight.

“Letting teams know this detail in advance is important, because ending these streaks causes enormous stress if there is not buy-in from the player,” Friedman wrote. “We’ll see where this goes over the next few weeks, but Kessel’s making a concession to keep things going.”

One of the biggest selling points for signing Kessel that he is eligible for a 35-plus contract, which could allow a team to sign him to a league-minimum contract topped with performance bonuses that won’t act against their cap. That might not be enough of a selling point for the Penguins, who are right up against the salary ceiling heading into the season, but it will make him an affordable option for a team with some breathing room.

Kessel that can still produce, even if he’s not the 92-point player the Penguins got back in 2017-18. That could be enough to get him back on an NHL roster before the season start, even if it’s not in Pittsburgh.