Following an unexpectedly swift exit from the 2019 post-season — a four-game sweep at the hands of the rival New York Islanders — it was clear to all that Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford would be making some changes this summer.
The veteran manager said as much in the immediate aftermath of his club’s undoing, telling reporters in April, “Some big decisions will have to be made. Obviously there will be changes in our team.”
As has been the case in past off-seasons, that spotlight shifted quickly to Phil Kessel — whose impact on the Penguins’ success is undeniable, but whose relationship with the club’s coaching stuff has reportedly been rocky as of late.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in late May that the Penguins had in fact discussed a deal for the winger with the Minnesota Wild, with that potential swap getting as far as Kessel vetoing the trade (the 31-year-old winger has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit an eight-team trade list, which gives him some control over his situation).
It appears the plans have changed, however, as it seems the measure of control Kessel holds has allowed him set to stick with the Penguins for the time being, according to Rutherford’s comments to The Athletic‘s Josh Yohe Tuesday.
“I think that’s the way things are headed at this point in time,” Rutherford told Yohe in regards to Kessel remaining in Pittsburgh. “I expect Kessel will probably play for Pittsburgh next season.”
Rutherford made clear that Kessel’s partial no-trade protection played a key role in the team coming to that conclusion.
“You have to understand that he has a no-trade clause and a lot of leverage,” Rutherford told The Athletic. “In situations like this, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the team. That’s just the way it is.
“So, at this point, it looks to me that he will return at this season. That’s how I’m proceeding moving forward.”
That said, the GM said Pittsburgh is fine heading into next season with No. 81 still in the fold: “First of all, he’s a good player. He’s been a good player for us. It’s not as if we have to trade him.”
Kessel posted 27 goals and 82 points for the Penguins in 2018-19, following a dominant 34-goal, 92-point effort one year prior, which set a career high in the latter category. The quick-footed winger played a key role in both of Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017, leading the Penguins in scoring during the first of those two runs.
The Madison, Wisc., native has three years left on his current deal, carrying a $6.8-million hit against the Penguins’ cap.