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Consequences of Keeping Phil Kessel; Inmates Running the Asylum

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Phil Kessel Goal Celebration

Remember all of that talk about trading Phil Kessel and possibly even Evgeni Malkin? Yeah, put those talks to bed. Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford candidly spilled the news Tuesday that much of the same Penguins team will return for another bite at the quickly rotting apple. Mostly the same squad which needed 81 games to secure a playoff spot and was immediately escorted out of the playoffs in just four games will re-assemble for training camp in September.

In multiple reports Tuesday (stick tap to Josh Yohe of the Athletic for being first), Penguins GM Jim Rutherford again confirmed the reports that Kessel vetoed the trade to Minnesota and admitted he would likely acquiesce to Kessel’s wish to stay in Pittsburgh. Rutherford also expertly put down the Evgeni Malkin trade questions and specifically included defenseman Kris Letang in the very unlikely pile, too.

However, Rutherford’s comments also signaled something far more common in Pittsburgh Penguins history: The inmates are again running the asylum. That’s closer to Penguins hockey than anything we saw this season.

The same star players who were bounced from the playoffs like a 17-year-old trying to sneak into a strip club with his uncle’s ID were able to call their shot and stay together despite the wishes of the general manager. Now, the Penguins have just $3.2 million of salary cap space, restricted free agents to sign and a need for fresh legs which weren’t sated by a pair of Stanley Cups.

But precious little money to do so.

To be clear, the team which was embarrassed without being humbled by the New York Islanders in Round One will not make any significant changes, according to the words spoken by their GM on Tuesday. But at least fans can keep their every-man hero. They’ll do so at the expense of winning another Stanley Cup, but that doesn’t seem to register with many.

Any belief to the contrary is part of the hope and joy of being a fan but antithetical to the hard reality that the Pittsburgh Penguins which were a mess last season will return mostly intact. Remember in April when Rutherford said, “we weren’t a team, from Day 1.”

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.

Kessel had 82 points. Point per game players are rare, so the public defenders say, always careful to avoid that Kessel was a -19 with 55 even strength turnovers, 78 overall giveaways, drew just three penalties, and had an awful second half of the season as he engaged in a free skate while the team pressed hard in the dirty areas. There are many arguments which center on the total accumulation of points–82 points in 82 games–but few take into account that opponents scored more. A gross +/- stat on a team full of players in the positive should tell a story.

Things probably won’t get better.

Consequences of Keeping Phil Kessel:

*By keeping Kessel, the Pittsburgh Penguins will not find significant salary cap relief to add a substantial piece or two. There will be very little new blood in a locker room which had friction. The Penguins may also be forced to sacrifice other players who would otherwise be a part of the present and future because of a lack of funds.

Marcus Pettersson and Zach Aston-Reese are restricted free agents who will get raises.

Olli Maatta already had one foot out the door, but the Kessel proclamation will have additional personnel impacts. The Penguins will need to find salary cap relief somewhere. Even if the most ardent Twitter bashers got their wish and the Penguins traded Jack Johnson, the team would save only $3.25 million which would be only a temporary and small band-aid.

*Matt Murray, Justin Schultz, and Jared McCann will need to be signed next summer. Unless the salary cap grows by a huge margin, the Penguins will be in even worse shape next summer. Who goes?

*Mike Sullivan. Another season of dysfunctional players will probably close the book on his Penguins tenure. Perhaps by mid-season. Don’t buy the blustering internet tripe from angry fans, Sullivan knows how to coach and won’t be unemployed for long. He doesn’t play favorites. Anyone who knows the difference can explain Dominik Simon occasionally playing in the top-six (though the Ian Cole thing is still a headscratcher) and the line shuffling is built on keeping pairs, not trios.

Players able to disregard the coach is the beginning of the end and the Penguins are headed down a well-traveled road. If the situation deteriorates too quickly, it could even create changes higher in the organization.

*Most importantly, it means the Penguins are not Stanley Cup contenders. Hope is great. Reality is what you saw this season. They may not make the playoffs next season. It took 81 games to punch their ticket this season. Can anyone rationally explain how a core which struggled on the ice, had internal friction and are now a year older will get better? There is no logical answer to that question other than hope for players to rebound and hope for things to improve.

Indeed, with such talented or proud names on the back of the jersey, the Penguins will have a chance to disprove doubters. But fully understand, with Phil Kessel forcing the Penguins hand, just making the playoffs will be the high water mark. The team is shrinking into old age, and now it seems there isn’t anything the organization can do about it.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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