Among all the elite NHLers who have delivered steady offensive production and repeated championships to their teams, few have been as polarizing as Phil Kessel.
There’s no question the star winger has been a hit in Pittsburgh since joining the team via trade in 2015, amassing 221 points in 246 games and playing a key role in delivering two Stanley Cups to the Steel City.
But after three years among the Penguins’ ranks — and following his first campaign in Pittsburgh that didn’t end in a championship parade — reports of unrest have begun making the rounds. Local beat writer Josh Yohe of The Athletic reported as much Tuesday, alleging that issues have emerged between Kessel and his team’s coaching staff.
Whether such a rift truly exists, or is serious enough to cause the team to part ways with its star winger, is unclear. But one thing we do know for sure is GM Jim Rutherford wants to make some changes before 2018-19 rolls around.
“I think it’s obvious that I’m going to keep an open mind to making some changes, and I will make some changes,” Rutherford told reporters following the team’s playoff loss to Washington. “I can’t give you a definite answer on who that’s going to be right now and exactly the positions, but we’re a good team, and we will be a good team going forward. We’ll have a chance to win again. We have the nucleus to do that.”
There’s a very good chance Kessel is considered part of that nucleus, and that the Madison, Wis., native will remain in Pittsburgh next season. But with his value at an all-time high following a career-best 92-point campaign, reports of tension between him and the team, and Rutherford looking to make some changes, it appears the door for a potential Kessel trade has been cracked open just a little bit.
What would it take to make such a trade happen? The 30-year-old has four years left on his $64-million deal, carrying a cap hit of $6.8 million per year ($1.2 million of his salary was retained by Toronto in the trade that sent the winger to Pittsburgh). Kessel’s contract also has a modified no-move clause, according to CapFriendly, which allows him to submit an eight-team trade list.
If the Penguins opt to move on and break up their Big Three earlier than expected, who might be interested? These five clubs would likely take a long look:
How they make the deal: The Flames have roughly $12.5 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, with their core locked up and a few depth free-agents to deal with. Fitting Kessel’s contract into the mix wouldn’t be easy, though a rising cap ceiling makes it more plausible, but if Calgary were to entice Rutherford into a trade, it would likely only come by dealing from a position of strength and shipping out a defenceman.
T.J. Brodie, packaged with a couple interesting prospects, would certainly help the Penguins’ cause, and would stylistically fit well with Pittsburgh. Moving out Brodie’s $4.65-million cap hit would also help fit Kessel in under the cap. On the ice, the Flames are stocked with more than a few options to fill in behind Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton, as prospects Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Adam Fox are all knocking on the door.
Why they make the deal: No rocket science here. The Flames have never housed a legitimate top-line winger to play with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, unless you count Jiri Hudler and his 76-point effort in 2014-15. Micheal Ferland has looked fine in the top-line role, but the Flames’ lack of bottom-six depth is well-documented.
So how about this for a new look? Kessel up top, opposite Gaudreau on Monahan’s right side; the Triple-M line continuing to do work on the second line; and Ferland helping boost the team’s struggling third unit. As we’ve seen in Pittsburgh, Kessel works best when he isn’t the main attraction, and while he’s a premier talent, Gaudreau’s high-flying presence would certainly ease the pressure on Kessel to be the No. 1 weapon.
Or, the Flames could keep the top line that’s worked — and one they like — and instead break up the 3M line by adding some scoring punch with Kessel and moving Michael Frolik to the third line. This could help spread out the scoring in the top-six, and perhaps make Calgary less of a one-line team on offence.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
How they make the deal: Columbus has about $13.4 million in cap space before it rises, so bringing in Kessel’s contract might require moving out a similar cap hit in return. But they have two options that could work. One is Cam Atkinson ($5.88 million per year), making the deal essentially a right winger-for-right winger-plus swap. He’s coming off a bit of a tumultuous season, starting slow before picking up by the year’s end, but still finished with a solid 24-goal effort in a down year.
For Columbus, Kessel serves as a sure upgrade over the solid Atkinson, while on the Penguins’ end, Atkinson serves as a slightly younger option, signed long-term (until 2025). Atkinson would have to waive a no-trade clause, though that may not be an issue given Pittsburgh’s championship track record. Another option: veteran Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85 million per year), play in a depth wing spot, or as a fill-in at centre on the third or fourth line when injuries hit, and bring some Patric Hornqvist-esque fire. Far from a one-for-one, the Blue Jackets would need to go prospect heavy to make it work.
Why they make the deal: When the Blue Jackets acquired Artemi Panarin from Chicago last summer, GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella both spoke specifically about him bringing in a more “dynamic” style of offence. They took a step forward in 2017-18 with Panarin leading the way, but clearly need more to move further. Enter, Kessel.
The six-time 30-goal-scorer remains one of the most talented snipers in the game, and since coming to Pittsburgh he’s proven his worth as an elite playmaker as well. Putting Kessel on the top line opposite left winger Panarin immediately changes the complexion of Columbus’ attack, and he’d be a good bet to improve the team’s 25th-ranked power play, too.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
How they make the deal: Perhaps the most absurd part of Vegas’ inaugural playoff run taking them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final is the fact that they have roughly $24.8 million in cap space to work with this summer. They have some key free agents to make decisions on — most notably RFA William Karlsson and UFAs James Neal and David Perron. If all three stay, there goes that cap space. But if GM George McPhee opts not to bring all three back, he could deal a package including centreman Erik Haula — coming off a career-best 29-goal, 55-point effort — to net a premier talent in Kessel.
Haula won’t be enough to pry Kessel out of Pittsburgh alone, but the team does have marquee prospects like Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki to work with if they so choose. On Pittsburgh’s end, adding a Haula gives them some versatility with the third-line centre role, potentially allowing the team to move Derick Brassard — who Pittsburgh felt could’ve benefitted from more minutes — up into a larger role on Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin‘s wing. Meanwhile, some top-end prospects help the club begin building up the next wave.
Vegas also has a plethora of defenceman leftover from the expansion draft they could use. That position is Pittsburgh’s biggest area of need and one where Vegas’ depth chart runs longest.
Why they make the deal: Why not? Vegas has done nothing but upend the status quo since coming into existence, and swinging a trade to land Phil Kessel would seem right on par with that. They’d also add a premier, reliably elite top-six talent to offset the potential of some of their 2017-18 stars regressing. As well, if Neal or Perron (or both) move on after this trip to the Final, Kessel comes in as a more than capable replacement.
Don’t discount the fact that Vegas is going to be tasked with following up what could very well be the most exciting season in NHL history. Not letting down their fans in Year Two will be part of the planning process, and Kessel’s style of play is always good for a highlight or two. And if you think GMs don’t weigh fan excitement and ticket sales when considering trades, take a look at Brian Burke’s comments on the first trade that involved Kessel.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
How they make the deal: The Devils have roughly $19.9 million in cap space, but a fair number of free agents up front to consider. That said, given their push towards a youth movement, and the five entry-level deals they have on the books next year, fitting in Kessel’s cap hit wouldn’t be much of an issue. More of an issue is who goes back the other way.
Marcus Johansson, in a package deal, may be the most likely option — a reliable scorer Pittsburgh is well-acquainted with from his time in Washington. Like Brassard, Johansson could give Sullivan some flexibility in terms of line assignments, as he can suit up as the third-line centre or on the wing with Crosby and Malkin. He didn’t make much of an impression in his first season in Jersey, with injuries limiting the 27-year-old to just 29 games.
Why they make the deal: New Jersey’s offensive reset took the NHL by storm in 2017-18, with Taylor Hall dominating the league on the left side. That was enough to get them back into the post-season mix, but surely not enough to give the Devils a fighting chance at making it to the second round or beyond. The team has Kyle Palmieri on the right side, but with Pat Maroon, Brian Gibbons, and Drew Stafford all hitting unrestricted free agency on July 1, Kessel could replace those potential losses and then some. He’d also help boost the Devils’ top-six overall, and could be lethal across from Hall on the power play.
Key to consider: GM Ray Shero has never been shy about pulling the trigger on deals to bring in marquee offensive stars. He swung the trade that brought Hall to New Jersey, and traded for Neal, Marian Hossa, and Jarome Iginla during his time in Pittsburgh. If Kessel becomes available, you can bet Shero will be involved.
How they make the deal: After a season that finished short of expectations and with a new GM in place, the Wild seem ripe for summer movement. They have plenty of trade candidates, too. In our list of 24 players who could get dealt this off-season, the Wild had four players appear. And in his latest 31 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman noted “the sense from other teams was the Wild expected more from Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. We’ll see if the new regime feels differently.”
The Wild have only roughly $7.4 million in cap room before it rises, with two big RFAs to sign in Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba. The Penguins could find interest in someone like Brodin ($4.166 million) or Niederreiter ($5.25 million) who are signed for another three and four years, respectively.
Why they make the deal: The Wild are a well-built team that has made the playoffs six consecutive seasons, but they’ve been knocked out in the first round three years in a row and have a combined four wins in that span. They’ve been a top 10 offence two regular seasons in a row, but the goals have completely dried up in the post-season. Kessel would help in that regard and comes with the added bonus of being a University of Minnesota alum.