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Adding Context to Kessel Trade Rumors, and Johnson Rumors Too

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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.

RedBeard's Pittsburgh

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.

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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.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Hatrick Pornqvist

    May 24, 2019 at 10:13 am

    Great article Dan,

    I wish the entire hockey internet could read it because, wow, was it just me or was yesterday an avalanche of crazy hot takes and hyperbolic rhetoric when in comes to Phil, and GMJR.

    There were those wailing about firing GMJR and how he’s destroying the team and we need to be exactly like 2016 or he has to go.

    There were those crying foul about the return (Zucker) with zero regard for the logistics and realities involved in this kind of deal, or what it means for the team in the end. Just focused on what we lose for what we get 1 for 1 as if there’s no bigger picture.

    There was the usual crowd who don’t believe locker room tension can exist because they like a guys production so much, that it’s impossible for them to believe he’s got locker room issues. Fire the coach then!!!

    I even saw a bunch of comments suggesting that GMJR was out of his mind because now Jack Johnson was costing us Phil Kessel! Basic premise was we were trading Kessel just to rid us of Johnson. That made me laugh.

    I like your perspective on things. Job well done. People need to step back and see the Forrest for the trees.

    • RobertU

      May 24, 2019 at 11:06 am

      Yep, this is one of the few places with actual insight; not just reciting “facts” or stoking the base, but adding insight to the known details, which may or may not be actual facts at the time insight is needed.

      Also, IMO, his production is a net-negative. I know people don’t like +/-, but if your team gives up significantly more goals with you on the ice over the course of an entire season, something is wrong. You can’t give the player all the credit for goals-scored (which are often about being in the right place at the right time) and then not take some credit away for goals-against (which are often about NOT being in the right place at the right time). There is so much luck involved in hockey that being good is now really about putting yourself in the right place at the right time. +/- over the long haul tells you something about a player’s ability to do this.

      If you don’t like +/- the Athletic has a nice analysis using something called the “Threat” metric…which not coincidentally shows almost the exact same stat as +/- for Kessel. The insight: he has a good shot, but is not a particularly good overall hockey player circa 2019.

      • Richard O'Toole

        May 24, 2019 at 4:18 pm

        Thank you Hatrick Pornqvist and RobertU, you saved me from writing almost word for word what you 2 have written.

        • Edgar

          May 25, 2019 at 1:35 pm

          I agree with most of the stuff written here, and do fin this blog a step above others, but just correcting one point, Kessel has been a net positive 5v5 in goals for 3 of the 4 years he has been here, including this past season. He was 52GF to 44 GA this season, with all of his fancy stats below 50%. He spent the most TOI with Jack Johnson defensively, and Letang was 5th in TOI of defensemen with Kessel, which I’m sure had an affect on his fancy stat numbers.

          • Dan Kingerski

            May 25, 2019 at 1:48 pm

            Edgar, Pittsburgh Hockey Now is not a blog. We are a professional news outlet which covers the Pittsburgh Penguins on a daily basis with interviews, reports and analysis. Thanks!

            And to dispell the myth that Jack Johnson submarined Phil Kessel’s season, the pair played less than 1/3 of their even strength time together. About 400 minutes. And with some irony, BOTH players had a similar 48% Corsi when apart but only 43% together. I know it is a popular assertion, but I hope that clears it up.

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 24, 2019 at 10:35 pm

      Thank you very much, Pornqvist!

  2. Joe

    May 25, 2019 at 7:58 am

    I am fascinated that the Pens want to dump Kessel because he likes Hostess HoHo’s!

  3. Edgar

    May 25, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Dan: Sorry to misrepresent you guys. I’m enjoying being here and love your content. Although we can have a lengthy discussion about JJ, my main point was simply that Phil is playing with the more defensive defensemen on the team so his numbers would lag a bit behind if he was playing large numbers with Kris. I get that’s probably got a lot to do with his own defensive deficiencies, which probably got my favorite player traded as he never should have been in a top 6 role, EVER. But, I digress. That’ all I really meant by who he was playing with. And I did post that he had a positive GF% AND played most if his time with JJ, so, I wouldn’t call that submarining him, would we?

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 26, 2019 at 12:04 am

      All good, glad you’re here. Enjoying the participation!

  4. BIG B

    May 25, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    Jack Johnson was not on the ice for his minus 13 on the PP.Jack Johnson was not on the ice for any of his overtime minus plays.Jack johnso had nothing to do with his very limited back checking.Jack Jojhnson had nothing to do with his lack of fitness. Jack Johnson had nothing to do with him sinking the ship and turning on the Fans in Toronto and being driven out of town on a rail.Jack Johnson had nothing to do with him being driven out of Boston as a 36 goal scoring kid.Jack Johnson had nothing to do with him not being wanted by the staff of the U.S National team for the WORLD CUP.Jack Johnson had nothing to do with his minus 80 as a Maple Leaf.Jack Johnson had nothing to do the factt he refused to participate in drills in Toronto. Jack Johnson had nothing to do with the team being upset that he spends too much time at the casino.Jack Johnson has nothing to do with the fact very few teams are interested in a big time scorer who has a cheap cap hit for the points.

    So in the famous words of a YOUTUBER leave Britney ,I mean Jack Alone.Well at least when it comes to Kessel.

  5. Pingback: Pittsburgh Penguins Fans Still Divided on Jack Johnson

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