If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. After attempting to trade Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this month only to have the 31-year-old veto the move, the Pittsburgh Penguins have offloaded the two-time Stanley Cup-winning winger to the Arizona Coyotes, moving out his cap hit and creating some valuable financial flexibility.
In a move made official Saturday evening, the Coyotes acquired Kessel from the Penguins along with project prospect Dane Birks and a 2021 fourth-round pick in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who was drafted 23rd overall by Arizona in 2017. No salary was retained as part of the deal, meaning the entirety of the $6.8-million for which Kessel counted against the Penguins' cap has been moved out by Pittsburgh. In the exchange, the Penguins clear $1.9 million, giving them roughly $5 million with which to work this summer.
It had become clear in recent weeks that Kessel’s time in Pittsburgh was set to come to a close sooner rather than later. Though he was among the Penguins’ top scorers and fresh off of an 82-point campaign that matched the second-highest scoring season of his career, rumors of tension between Kessel and coach Mike Sullivan have swirled for some time. And Pittsburgh’s willingness to move Kessel – and his willingness to accept a move to Arizona, which is likely tied in part to the presence of coach Rick Tocchet – is an absolute boon to an offense that was in desperate need of adding a pure scorer to its lineup.
Last season, the Coyotes finished in a tie for third-last in the NHL with 209 goals, a meager 2.68 per game. Not only was Arizona offensively inept, though, their power play was also among the worst in the league. Kessel potentially stands to solve both problems and greatly improves the Coyotes’ situation. To wit, Kessel ranks 28th in goals over the past four seasons, his entire tenure in Pittsburgh, and his 36 power play goals rank 23rd in the NHL over that same span. Kessel is, in effect, a replacement for Galchenyuk, too, though one that offers much greater upside despite the fact he’s entering the late stages of or exiting his prime. Galchenyuk, for all he did well in Arizona, didn’t transform into the top-six pivot for which the Coyotes had hoped, and the 25-year-old spent the majority of his time on the wing while scoring 19 goals and 41 points.
Given Galchenyuk’s offensive gifts, however, one can’t help but salivate at the potential he could have as a winger alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Both pivots, particularly the former, have made a habit of turning their wingers into studs, and Galchenyuk seems a possible fit alongside Crosby and one who could produce in bunches as a top-line winger if given the chance. It’s undoubtedly the best opportunity of Galchenyuk’s career, and it could be just the fit that finally sees him break out in the way many have expected him to since he was drafted third overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2012.
Despite the situation the Penguins were in with Kessel, too – stuck with a player whom they clearly wanted to separate – Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford did all right. He wasn’t trading from a position of power, but still got some decent pieces. Again, Galchenyuk’s upside is one aspect of this deal, but Joseph is no slouch. The soon-to-be 20-year-old rearguard was ranked 88th overall in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019 and he was the third-ranked prospect in Arizona’s system. He is now the only prospect in the Penguins’ system who landed in the top 100 in Future Watch 2019, which is judged by a panel of scouts, and he leapfrogs any blueline prospect Pittsburgh had at its disposal.
The one potential drawback here for the Penguins? Retaining him is no guarantee if Galchenyuk has himself a bang-up season as part of either of Pittsburgh’s top lines. Currently entering the final year of a three-year pact that pays him $4.9-million per season, Galchenyuk is eligible to hit the open market next summer. The Penguins are projected to have plenty of cap space next off-season, about $23-million, but contracts for goaltender Matt Murray as well as considerations that need to be given to current free agents Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese, as well as Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun and Dominik Simon, each of whom are in the last season of their contracts, will eat into that cap space.
Those are worries to be addressed another day, though. For now, the Penguins will be happy to have finally found a new home for Kessel, while the Coyotes will be over the moon about landing a legitimate top-line weapon who turns a popgun offense into one with some genuine firepower.
(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)
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