The internet ran wild Thursday after the first official Phil Kessel trade rumors reached the electronic pages of multiple outlets. It’s not been a secret the Pittsburgh Penguins have every intention of trading Phil Kessel. It’s been known around the league; to journalists and even to fans who were willing to admit the every-man player around whom they circled the wagons needed a fresh start.
For many reading the words still came like a bucket of cold water with a few jagged ice cubes.
Unfortunately, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is in a no-win situation. The league is not enamored with Kessel like Pittsburgh fans. Even Kessel in his 20s did not set the trade market afire. For one of the premier goal scoring forwards in the league, the Penguins gave up prospect Kasperi Kapanen who took four seasons to flourish but still scored only 44 points and what became the last pick of the first round.
Oh, Nick Spaling, a third-round pick and minor leaguers, too.
In other words, the Penguins didn’t exactly put their entire 401k on the craps table and roll the dice.
Four years later, the league is less enamored with Kessel as he again had friction with a head coach and was not a force on the ice, despite an impressive 82-point total. Even Kessel admitted he had a down year.
“I had a good run here; the last four years I’ve been here. Obviously, there’s going to be ups and downs and this year wasn’t a good one,” Kessel said on locker clean out day last month.
Kessel is 31-years-old and is not exactly a guy who hits the gym with a vengeance. He may not age so gracefully. Pittsburgh Hockey Now has also examined why Kessel’s game appears different; one large reason are defensemen getting back have impeded his ability to get to the faceoff dot for the clean wrister which became his bread-and-butter play.
Penguins Director of Sports Science Andy O’Brien told the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast in April that he had to make concessions with Kessel, because the player refused advice to give up things like soda and snacks.
This is the reason you love Kessel but the rest of the league is iffy.
So, Rutherford is hoping to leverage Kessel’s power-play wizardry and ability to score points into a deal. Unfortunately for the Penguins, the trade will not bring the type of return which will make fans happy. Not even close.
The context necessary when evaluating a potential Kessel deal is not what you think he may be worth, but what the rest of the league thinks. That is the market. You can have the most awesome, special, loved car in the world, but when you take it to the dealership to trade it in for something a little newer, the value is never quite what you expect, is it?
And so Minnesota Wild right wing Jason Zucker who is just one season removed from a 33-goal outburst but is otherwise a 40-point player with good skates might just be the best the Penguins can do. It won’t be Jim Rutherford’s fault for not calling more teams, nor will it be that Rutherford didn’t negotiate hard enough. And definitely not because Rutherford has lost “it.”
A new team won’t be buying the 31-year-old Kessel who scored 82 points. They will be looking ahead to 32 and 33-year old Kessel and if he will give their head coach grief, too.
As a small sidenote, the Athletic report was careful not to include Jack Johnson or Victor Rask as part of the report but only as secondary speculation. Penguins fans who have again hopped on the anti-Johnson bandwagon after hopping off in February and March should temper expectations in that regard, as well.
General managers often start with a wide net before figuratively boiling their discussions down to the final trade. For example, Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta was involved in the initial discussions with the LA Kings and Anaheim Ducks but is still a Penguins defenseman.
The best return for Kessel fans can hope for might be a functional or useable piece. The Penguins won’t replace Phil Kessel on the ice, and that’s part of the point. They need to be harder to play against and more responsible, on the ice and off. The Penguins aren’t trading the Kessel who became part of the HBK line and won the 2016 Stanley Cup. They’re trading Phil Kessel who has some baggage and is entering the final leg of his career.
The Penguins were unceremoniously bounced in Round One by a team which was swept away in the following round. The Penguins are 1-2 in their last three playoff series, with an aging core and locker room tension.
Rutherford will get full value, as long as that value is properly understood.