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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.

RedBeard's Pittsburgh

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.

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Ricardo58

    June 12, 2019 at 8:01 am

    During the 66 playing era at various times, similar comments such as a country club atmosphere and/or inmates running the asylum were used as well. Since the Pens are keeping 81, I believe his contract will also force their hands to protect him in the expansion draft? So in addition to 87, 71, 58 and 81 will have to be protected?

    Other than a player such as 87 or 71, I would think the Pens wouldn’t agree to no trade or move clauses any further. This contractual clause isn’t worth it in my opinion regarding players such as 81 and 58.

    Maybe the draft will bring some optimistic news to the team? Of course when 73 is traded, the Pens vault right back to the top of the Stanley Cup contenders. Hahahahahahaha Go Pens.

  2. Jackmccrory

    June 12, 2019 at 9:00 am

    No need renewing season tickets for this season.

  3. Edgar

    June 12, 2019 at 11:13 am

    I’m not as negative here. Rutherford made a major mistake in not getting Phil’s permission for the trade to Min, before discussing the deal. Obviously he thought it wouldn’t be an issue but he whiffed there.
    Phil actually had a positive GF% at 5v5, and really, SH goals are almost exclusively the fault of the 2 guys on the blue line. So, it’s tough to blame him there. And that’s what we want out of our players. Positive impacts 5v5.
    To add another positive here, Phil, this past season was on the ice for 17 LESS 5v5 goals against in almost the exact same minutes played than the previous year. That’s pretty darn good. I’m sure playing with Hags a good portion of the first half helped a lot.
    I totally agree the team needs improvement, and you’re not getting enough by shedding some bottom guys on the roster. That, to me was the main issue. But, we should play better, if not just for the Florid trade. So, we should make the playoffs, and hopefully we can address some issues at the TDL. Yes, the cap issues are worrisome. But, that’s par for the course for teams that have won multiple cups.

    • Dan Kingerski

      June 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm

      Fair points. The one sentence I may add some info to is the power play. As the Penguins utilize a single point approach, Kessel is often the defacto high forward, and he was directly responsible for 5-7 of the 15, depending on who you ask.

      • Edgar

        June 12, 2019 at 7:02 pm

        Ya, I get that for sure. That’s certainly not his optimal role. Did Sully make any changes as the season went along? It was a very rough year for all, no doubt.

    • DaveP

      June 12, 2019 at 5:47 pm

      You are wrong about it being the defense’s fault for the short handed goals. The team is pinching and he knows that when he gets the puck. Phil simply has to get the puck passed the blue line. His point production 5on5 was terrible. He was on the ice for less 5on5 because he wasn’t on with Malkin all year like the previous year.

  4. H Eng

    June 12, 2019 at 11:23 am

    The team should just let the contracts play themselves out and let them expire.
    In three years, Tanger; Geno; Kessel; Rust and DeSmith will be UFA (not commenting on whom to re-sign). That is about $30M in Cap Space.

    In the interim, Ruhwedel and Gudbranson plus possible Bjugstad is gone via UFA in two years.
    Anther contract will be dealt with by the expansion draft.

    Unfortunately, the contract that is not getting talked about a lot is Schultz. At worse, Pens lose him at the end of next season.
    Possibly he will get dealt mid-season / deadline.

    It actually makes more sense at this point to either sign him to a team friendly deal (unlikely) or package him for a chance to compete for SC.
    There is a real possibility Crosby loses half of his remaining contract so Pens can re-build, re-boot, re-tool because of the current make up of the team.

  5. Brian

    June 12, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    I actually agree with all the points. The coach and GM are both undercut here. The players will now see Sullivan as powerless and more will freelance and the team will sink farther this season regardless of coach or player leadership

    • Dan Kingerski

      June 12, 2019 at 1:48 pm

      I’ll take the word “actually” as a sign that you’re surprised you agree with me. Come around more often!

  6. Ujn Hunter

    June 12, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Don’t forget we’ve got a full season coming up now with both Bjugstad & McCann. Maybe Jack Johnson pulls a Paul “American Hero” Martin move and feels better in his second full season with the Pens. Peterson will also look to build on a solid “Rookie” season on the backend, and Schultz will hopefully be able to play more than 29 games… so just because it took the Pens 81 games last year to punch their ticket… they were missing key pieces most of the year and had to carry around Brassard…

  7. Hatrick Pornqvist

    June 12, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    Hey Dan,

    What degree of GMJR’s collective media statements are strategic in your opinion? First we get wind of a deal before it’s even brought to the player. Then we hear they are fine keeping him. Then he’s going to remain a penguin. I wouldn’t say I’d be shocked a year from now to hear three teams had offers for Phil. Really, a 90 point guy in today’s NHL, even with the limitations, has to get the phones ringing, no?

    Seems like a lot of public statements for a real sticky situation where things could be ugly behind the scenes. Not exactly the kind of situation you’d call common and makes me wonder.

  8. Keith Thomas

    June 12, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    Let’s face it, the Pens are in somewhat of a bind. But one would think that JR can use the Press for a variety of reasons. One might be to convey information for a variety of reasons to multiple people. One being 81. I find it hard to believe that he wants to return to a team that clearly wants to trade him and particularly a coach where he is at odds with. Perhaps he is just throwing the medicine ball back on to Phil’s lap saying “like it or lump it…. you are here unless you expand options for us to move you. My hunch is that JR is putting pressure on 81 rather than acquiescing to his demands.

    It is hard for me to fathom MS punching the ticket for the season and going through the motions. He is a fiery coach who is not passive. If there are not changes, MS may want out of the asylum. Tragically that is the loss of a great coach. If they don’t trade a number of players expect the team to repeat or perhaps falter quickly due to distention lack of unity and ability to follow a coaches game plan strategy. What team can be successful with that kind of mind-set. If they fail early on, expect MS to be fired before Christmas.

  9. RobertU

    June 12, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    Well, I hope Rutherford is bluffing to make other GMs think he would rather keep the current guys than take a lowball trade offer. It’s probably the only thing resembling leverage that he’s got right now. If he’s not bluffing, the window is closed and we can all find another team to root for come playoff time.

  10. Frank

    June 12, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    There is more to the Kessel on again off again yapping. This daily venting by an NHL GM in the media is nothing short of weird. Next he will be taking calls on contract language for Murray! Nope! Something is not adding up here. Phil is going to be a distraction all season if he returns. He will be surrounded by rumors and buried in interviews by media in just about every city they visit. And the Canadian media is going to be relentless. Now that the team has painted him as unwanted and problem they want you to believe all would be dandy if he returned. C’mon GMJR. You are too far out to sea on this now to return to shore!

  11. Matt Luda

    June 13, 2019 at 12:31 am

    Nothing short of a mutiny should cost Sully his job. It’s GMJR who has gotta go. Dude, the guy is 70 years old. Give him a gold watch and a HOF plaque then hire a bright, young mind who can reload quickly before Sid hangs them up.

  12. Chris

    June 13, 2019 at 12:38 am

    Why would any team want to bail the pens out of this mess they’ve put themselves into for a guy known as a coach killer who is known more for eating hot dogs than caring about cardio? Even if you thought he’d give you points, it’s clear the organization and the fanbase can’t move on to other productive topics bc everything is now focused on whether Sullivan is going to be fired bc they can’t ditch 81. For a team as otherwise stacked as PP you can’t buy that kind of strategic interference for 6mil, let alone have it come from their own purses.

  13. Hentryk

    June 13, 2019 at 8:41 pm

    The Pens need to send Kessel to the press box of his play resembles last year. I also won’t write off Rutherford just yet. He has circled back on trades before to include pretending Brassard could still fit in Pittsburgh.

  14. Pingback: NHL Rumors: Pittsburgh Penguins – Phil Kessel, Jim Rutherford, Wayne Simmonds, and more - Hockey News

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