Two years ago today, the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks were preparing to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, and at this time last season, the Penguins had just opened their championship defense with a Game 1 victory over the Nashville Predators. At points during both of Pittsburgh’s title runs, too, there had been honest and thoughtful discussions about Phil Kessel’s potential candidacy for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
But my, how drastically the conversation around a player can change in a year.
Late last week, Kessel’s name began to appear in headlines on the heels of a report from Pittsburgh radio host Mark Madden that the 30-year-old winger would be a trade option for the Penguins this summer, and those rumblings picked up more steam Tuesday when The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reported tensions have grown between Kessel and Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.
According to Yohe, part of what has frayed Kessel’s relationship with the coach is his deployment during the playoffs. Kessel wanted to skate on the top two lines and play alongside Evgeni Malkin, which he did for 47 minutes at 5-on-5 during the post-season. However, more often than not, Kessel played with Riley Sheahan as his pivot. The two spent more than 62 minutes together at five-a-side during the playoffs, and when Kessel wasn’t with either Malkin or Sheahan, he was skating with Derick Brassard down the middle.
And whether it was deployment, personal frustrations, injuries -- Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said Kessel dealt with injuries all season but wouldn’t require off-season surgery -- or a combination of all three and more, Kessel undoubtedly struggled during the post-season. In fact, it was inarguably the least effective playoff run of his career. Having entered the post-season with 31 goals and 66 points in 71 career playoff games, Kessel managed just one goal in 12 games, though he did pick up eight assists to bring his overall point total to nine by the time Pittsburgh’s run came to a conclusion.
This isn’t the first time Kessel’s name has cropped up in potential off-season trade chatter, of course. Even after the 2017 Stanley Cup run, Kessel was singled out as a possible trade option for the Penguins, but that rumor was squashed during the summer by Rutherford. Keeping Kessel in the fold certainly paid dividends this past season, too, as he was arguably the team’s most valuable player during the first half of the season and closed the campaign with 34 goals and 92 points, finishing six points back of Malkin and three points clear of Sidney Crosby for second in team scoring. If ever there was a time to trade Kessel, however, this may be it.
Financially, the Penguins are in as tight a spot as any franchise heading into the 2018-19 campaign, as only the Los Angeles Kings have less projected cap space than Pittsburgh’s $4.78 million. And while true that the Penguins’ cap space could grow by as much or more than $5 million if current salary cap growth projections are met, $9 million and change won’t be all that much wiggle room for Pittsburgh when it comes to adding and retaining players.
As the Penguins enter the off-season, they have five restricted free agents with arbitration rights in need of new pacts after finishing the campaign with the big club, including Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Riley Sheahan, Dominik Simon and Jamie Oleksiak. Re-signing each of the five RFAs may not prove too costly, sure, but it will eat into whatever money the Penguins will have available to add should the rest of the roster remain the same. The Penguins would surely love to add more depth on the blueline and inject some additional scoring, too. They could even add another top-six scorer to replace Kessel were he and his $6.8-million cap hit, which is currently on the books until 2021-22, moved in the summer.
There is an added benefit to moving Kessel beyond salary cap savings, too, in that the Penguins could do with at least a minor refresh of their prospect pool. In no way, shape or form does Pittsburgh need to rebuild, but recouping some draft choices or prospects in a Kessel trade could help the Penguins restock their cupboards. That’s especially important given a panel of scouts ranked their prospect group the worst in the league, 31st out of the NHL’s 31 teams, in THN’s 2018 Future Watch. It’s worth noting that Pittsburgh has only two draft picks in the top four rounds this coming season and are without a third-rounder in 2019 and a second-rounder in 2020.
So, reported rift with Sullivan aside, moving Kessel might actually be a move worth making for the Penguins. One thing to keep in mind is that Kessel does have some control over his fate given he has a no-trade clause that allows him to submit a list of eight teams to which he’d accept a move. But if Pittsburgh does make a deal, where could Kessel land?
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Again, it’s amazing how greatly things can change in the span of a year. Last season at this time, few players would have willingly packed up and shipped out to Vegas, but the Golden Knights’ success could make them a destination for Kessel. From a cap perspective, too, Vegas should have the money to make it work, particularly if, say, David Perron is jettisoned in the off-season. The Golden Knights could have as much as $30 million to spend, and that’s enough money to bring in Kessel even after signing free agents-to-be James Neal, William Karlsson, Tomes Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller and William Carrier.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Maybe not the most obvious fit, but stick with us here: the Blues could have about $18 million to spend this summer with no major free agents to bring back into the fold and a deep prospect pool that could help pry Kessel out of Pittsburgh. St. Louis has that air of a win-now team, too, particularly with some key members of the club, from Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund to Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, nearing or already well into their 30s. The Blues aren’t likely to want to part ways with any of their top-tier prospects, but an Ivan Barbashev or someone of his ilk might help sweeten the pot for Pittsburgh. The Blues might be one of the teams most willing and able to part ways with a first-round pick, too.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Kessel agreeing to go to New York might be entirely contingent on whether or not the Islanders re-sign John Tavares, of course, but it actually makes sense as a potential destination. If Kessel remains a top-six player -- and if Tavares remains in town -- he would be able to play alongside one of Tavares or Mathew Barzal. That’s not bad. And if the Islanders can find some goaltending and add a bit on the blueline, they could be a contender with a deep offensive attack in the very near future. It wouldn’t make an awful lot of sense for New York to part ways with top prospects, but four picks in the first two rounds can give the Islanders some pieces with which to play.
Again, maybe not a natural fit when these trade discussions come up, but the Hurricanes need to add scoring punch. Over the past four seasons, only three teams have fewer goals per game than Carolina, and while the youth movement seems to be in full effect with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen spearheading the next generation of Hurricanes, adding a consistent 30-goal presence to the lineup could be awfully beneficial. The good thing, too, is adding Kessel doesn’t even mean Jeff Skinner has to go. Carolina has a boatload of cap space, possibly more than $32 million this summer, with a talented young D-corps and no bank-busting free agents to re-sign ahead of 2018-19. They have picks and prospects, too, that could be used to make a deal.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
There’s a massive caveat here, which is that the Kings would probably only be able to make something like this work if they parted ways with a Tyler Toffoli or Tanner Pearson type. Reason being is that the money is awfully hard to work out in Los Angeles and Drew Doughty is going to be in line for a sizeable pay raise come next summer, potentially one with a cap hit that is as much or more than $10 million per season. The Kings need scoring in a bad way, though, and since his breakout season in 2008-09, Kessel only Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin have scored more goals.
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