By: Patrick Donnelly
According to a report from Sportsnet’s Elliot Freedman in his weekly 31 Thoughts column, the Pittsburgh Penguins “tested the market” on star winger and former Boston Bruin Phil Kessel.
This is a tricky and puzzling situation for the Penguins. Just three weeks ago the team was in the depths of the Eastern Conference; then, GM Jim Rutherford made two one-for-one swaps (first Carl Hagelin (LW) to the Kings for Tanner Pearson (LW), and more recently Daniel Sprong (RW) to the Ducks for Marcus Petterson (D)), and now they find themselves just four points out of a playoff spot.
Rutherford could be looking for some more moves as well to shakeup the team and to continue to bolster Pittsburgh’s defense, which is notably thin, despite winning two straight Stanley Cups two years ago with a similarly mediocre corps.
With all-world generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to go along with good top-six players like Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Derrick Brassard, and Pearson, the Penguins have some wiggle room to trade some pieces without drastically overhauling the team.
This brings us to Phil Kessel. The 31-year-old has 31 points (12G, 21A) through 28 games this season and has a cap-hit of $6.8 million (the Leafs retained $1.2M of $8M in the trade to Pittsburgh) for the next three seasons after this year with a modified no-movement clause, so Kessel has some say in where he would go.
Freedman, one of the NHL’s top insiders, offered no other speculation other than that Rutherfod may be looking to further upgrade the Pens and that we’ll have to see if this goes anywhere.
Now, this may not seem to make sense for a number of reasons. First, why would the Penguins make this move in-season? Doesn’t it make them worse off? Well, that depends on what they get back and what Rutherford’s plans for the team are.
Second, why would Kessel approve a trade back to Boston when things ended terribly the first go around? Well, that was a different NHL with a different coach with different management, who both notably very much undervalued good, young talent (see: Tyler Seguin, Kessel, the first round pick that turned into Rickard Rakell, Blake Wheeler – although the Wheeler trade brought you a Stanley Cup with Rich Peverley, so pick and choose the battles there).
However, the appeal is there for all sides involved. Kessel has continued to produce at a premium rate since leaving Boston and Toronto. The 5th-overall pick in the 2006 draft, Kessel recorded 92 points and 34 goals last season after 70 points and 23 goals the season before that. Even at his worst, Kessel has been a 20-goal, 60-point scorer. As stated, Kessel has 31 points in 28 games this season, so the production is no issue.
Kessel has also proven himself as a clutch playoff performer, with 22 points then 23 points in Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Cup runs, followed by nine points in 12 playoff games last season to go along with 75 points in 83 career postseason games.
The issue is whether or not there is substance to the rumor, if Pittsburgh is actually willing to move him, if Kessel would approve being sent to Boston, and what the cost would be for the Bruins.
For the Bruins, this gives an opportunity to unload one of the many young defensemen in the system, since it’s pretty obvious they won’t be able to keep all of them and Pittsburgh would love to acquire some help on defense. Also, the Bruins would be able to vastly improve their offensive production outside of the first line. Just imagine a second line of Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, and Phil Kessel – lethal. Then, the bottom two lines would finally find stability for once this season.
Enter a guy like Matt Grzlecyk. Grzlecyk has played an extremely elevated role this season in the wake of the many injuries for the Bruins back-end, and, overall, the Charlestown native has performed well. So, Grzlecyk’s trade value may never be higher, so the Bruins could capitalize on packaging him with a young forward like Danton Heinen, Peter Cehlarik, or Zach Senyshyn, and a pick (a second-rounder?). So, essentially a roster player, a prospect, and a pick. Jakub Zboril could also be an option for a defenseman going back to Pittsburgh, among other possibilities.
However, again, the biggest issues here would be whether or not Pittsburgh actually wants to move Kessel, and who the Bruins would have to send back.
While Kessel may not be the most realistic option or even an option at all, he is one of the only players to actually be mentioned in headlines lately – true or not. Other names that have been tossed around in pure speculation include: Chris Kreider, Tyler Toffoli, Mats Zuccarello, Jeff Carter, Kevin Hayes, Wayne Simmonds, and Artemi Panarin.
There are certainly some enticing options out there that the Bruins could use to help solve the glaring issue for this team, production from lines two through four.
Don Sweeney would be wise to, at the very least, kick the tires on potential solutions.