One of the hardest things to do in the NHL is to rebuild a team on the fly—to remake the roster, usually younger and cheaper, while still remaining competitive. The Blackhawks are the success story of the salary cap era, but even they had to pay the piper eventually. Now it’s the Penguins’ turn, though they don’t really have much choice: The obvious and correct thing to do is try to win while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still in their primes, even if that means trading away their third option. Phil Kessel has almost certainly played his last game in Pittsburgh.
It’s an open secret that Kessel is a near sure-thing to be moved this summer—not even the first summer that’s been a strong rumor. But this time we have details. The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports the Penguins and Minnesota Wild have a deal in place, centered on Kessel for speedy 27-year-old winger Jason Zucker, and that “it is believed the only holdup at this time is Kessel, who has the right to veto the trade.”
Also potentially on the table is a swap of bad contracts in center Victor Rask and defenseman Jack Johnson. If it’s a pure two-for-two trade, the Pens would get a little younger and a little more future cost certainty—exactly what they showed they were looking for in their February trade with Florida for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.
But, as has been the case for most of his career, the sexy piece here is Kessel. He’s still a consistent offensive force, durable and sturdy as they come. But his game has gotten increasingly one-dimensional, and he doesn’t really make his linemates better and in some cases actually aggravates them to the point of making them worse (Malkin). The Athletic describes Kessel thus: “his enigmatic nature has irritated coaching staffs and front offices in Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh.” That’s a hell of a euphemism, and a loaded one, but Kessel’s eventually found himself the center of attention—often for bad reasons, but often not his fault—everywhere he’s played. He is an occasional headache, but one who will unerringly play 82 games and give you somewhere between 25 and 35 goals. He’s a hugely valuable player, but a change of scenery could very well do both him and Pittsburgh some good.
Zucker also offers some consistency, but in his floor rather than his ceiling. He’s scored at least 20 goals in four of his five NHL seasons, but he followed up a breakout 33-goal, 31-assist 2017-18 season with a relative down year: 21 goals and 21 helpers this past campaign. He’s faster than Kessel, and more defensive-minded, and these things seem like they’d make him a better fit in Mike Sullivan’s system—and more likely to make Evgeni Malkin happy. Still, he’s no true replacement for Kessel, but at the same time he might be the closest the Penguins will be able to get. Zucker is signed for four more years at $5.5M per.
(On the other side of this, what are the Wild’s grand plans? Who really knows, man. Kessel would be a nice addition, but they really do seem extremely horny for bad contracts. Maybe having Jack Johnson on the books until 2023 won’t look so bad when Suter and Parise are signed for two additional seasons after that.)
It seems like this is all down to Kessel, who has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 23(!) teams, Minnesota among them. The Athletic reports that Kessel is still deciding whether to waive his NTC, and that “he did research on Minnesota and the Wild during the past week.” And if you’re now also having a visual of Kessel sitting down to Google some things, congratulations: It’s a fun thing to picture.
Even if Kessel vetoes a Wild deal, the very fact that the specifics have leaked make it probable that the Penguins have made up their mind to move him this summer. Pittsburgh hopes it’s less the end of an era, and more the propping open of a window.