It looks like Phil Kessel is staying put in Pittsburgh. For now, anyway.
Earlier this week, an idea was floated by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook that the Penguins sniper could be an interesting trade candidate for the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The opinion surfaced around the same time assistant coach Rick Tocchet was hired away from Pittsburgh to be head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, as Kessel and Tocchet reportedly had a very strong relationship.
During an appearance on a local radio show co-hosted by Cook on 93.7 The Fan on Thursday, Penguins general manager Rutherford spoke highly of Kessel’s contributions, calling him “an important part of the Penguins” and putting any potential trade rumours to rest.
“He gets a lot of points. He scores big goals. He sets up big goals,” Rutherford said. “The more impact players that you have, like we have, the better chance you have of winning.”
Kessel has enjoyed two successful seasons in Pittsburgh, quickly jumping into “fan favourite” status among Pittsburgh faithful and has, by all accounts, been a positive addition to the club’s locker room.
He registered 23 goals and a career-high 47 assists this past regular season with the Penguins. His 70 points in a full 82-game campaign was his best total in Pittsburgh (he had 59 points in his first season with the club in 2015-16) and his highest point total since an 80-point 2013-14 campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 29-year-old winger added eight goals and 15 assists for a 23-point post-season to help the Penguins win their second straight Stanley Cup. Rutherford acknowledged that while Kessel’s game lacked consistency at times this spring, he came through when it really counted—take Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, for example.
“It may not be on a regular basis, but it may come at a certain time in a series or whatnot, just like it did against Ottawa. Kessel came up with the big goal in that 1-0 game,” he said.
According to CapFriendly.com, the Penguins currently have about $10 million in cap space and three players on their to-sign list: RFAs Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin (both of whom are due for an arbitration hearing later this summer) and a yet-to-be-named centreman who can fill the skates of Nick Bonino, who signed with Nashville as a free agent earlier this month. Kessel has five seasons remaining on his eight-year, $64-million contract, which comes with a $6.8-million cap hit (The Leafs retained an annual $1.2-million hit).
“He’s an important part. I don’t want to sit here and say that a certain player is not going to get traded at some point in his career. I mean, Phil already did,” Rutherford said of Kessel, who was dealt from the Leafs to the Penguins in July 2015. “But that’s not something that I foresee happening right now.”