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Penguins Mythbusters: Kessel, Letang, Trade Bait and Daniel Sprong



Phil Kessel and Kris Letang photos by Michael Miller. Daniel Sprong photo by Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Hockey analysis often feels like a delicate balance between informing and figuratively popping balloons like a sugared-up 10-year old at a birthday party. The internet and social media have brought us closer together, but that also means opinions become perception and oft-repeated bits of conventional wisdom without actually being true. Pens nation is not immune from this literally communicable disease.

It’s time to do some Penguins myth-busting.

Kessel Plays Well with Malkin

Not if you look at the numbers, bottom line and analytical.

Pittsburgh Hockey Now has taken great pains to inform and maintain a fair distribution of Phil Kessel’s value. The hard truth is that Evgeni Malkin’s line Corsi with most linemates was above 56 percent. With Kessel, the line Corsi hovered at 50 percent. Check out Malkin’s report card. for in-depth analysis. 

With most linemates, Malkin’s goals-for percentage was also well above 50 percent. With Kessel, it was near 44 percent.

Head coach Mike Sullivan said he separated the pair because they didn’t shoot enough when together. It’s also true that each player is better with the puck on their stick. That is why Kessel can produce goals from Riley Sheahan’s right wing. Or Tyler Bozak’s. Or Nick Bonino’s.

Malkin and Kessel clicked in February 2016 before Malkin’s injury led to the creation of the HBK line but Kessel is a different player now. He intentionally added a playmaking dimension to his game. Last season, he and Malkin oft looked like drivers who arrive at the 4-way stop sign at the same time and sit there forever while they keep waving each other through.

Penguins Trade Bait is Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary

The two names most commonly tossed out as trade bait are Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin.

Yeah, no.

Both seem unlikely to go via trade, but for different reasons. The Penguins have a genuine lack of expendable players, so those names are used. Hagelin’s elite speed creates turnovers and offensive chances for Evgeni Malkin, and he is the Penguins leading penalty killer. Hagelin averaged 2:32 shorthanded, last season.

Hagelin, 29, is entering the final year of his contract, which has a $4 million AAV. Unless his demands are significantly greater than his current take, there isn’t any reason to consider dealing him. In fact, the opposite route should be discussed.

Sheary, 26, seems an unlikely trade candidate because of his near-disastrous 2017-18 season. A late-season rally propelled him to only 30 points. His $3 million annual contract has two years remaining.

Sheary also had very good underlying advanced statistics. Check them out in his PHN Extra report card. He should have had a solid 2018-19, based on the analytics and the eye test of last season. His chemistry with center Derick Brassard was unmistakable. So, the Penguins would have to get equal or greater value to deal Sheary.

Sheary could be moved as part of a salary dump to make a bigger move or as a balancing piece to a larger trade, but it seems more silly than serious to suggest Rutherford is working the phones to upgrade the Penguins using Sheary as bait.

Jim Rutherford Said He’s Not Trading Kessel or Letang

Actually, in each case, Jim Rutherford said he wasn’t “actively” attempting to trade each player.

That is a country mile from “not” trading either player.

How many examples across all sports does one need to take a GM’s comments with a little grain of salt or to parse the language carefully, even with a straight shooter like Rutherford? A GM cannot say he isn’t making a trade, because then he looks to be a liar if he does, and he can’t say is trying to make a trade because then the asset value drops.

Daniel Sprong Will Be in the Lineup


It seems a leap to expect a player who, despite the Penguins’ pressing need for offense, couldn’t stick in the NHL last season. A player who scores goals for a living must get positionally proficient enough to avoid hurting the team in moments when he is not scoring. Perhaps Daniel Sprong will dispel enough negatives in training camp and preseason. However, after three seasons (actually two seasons, since he missed much of his sophomore season recovering from shoulder surgery, but only played as an overage Junior for Charlottetown in 2016-17), he is guilty until proven innocent.

Ask the New York Islanders about their prized prospect and fellow defensively challenged sniper Josh Ho-Sang.

Sprong is entirely unproven and the hype surrounding him has everything to do with the gaudy AHL statistics and nothing to do with his play. The decision to keep Sprong beyond his 9-game tryout in his rookie season may turn out to be one of the Penguins biggest mistakes as he is out of time to develop.

It’s all-or-nothing for Sprong who is no longer waiver-exempt, according to

If Sprong cracks the Penguins lineup next season it could well be as a developmental course and he could see plenty of press box nachos, while the Penguins figure out what to do. Or…he could be trade bait.


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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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