Over the many years of a legendary career, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has shown he does not shy away from making massive trades to make his team competitive. On July 30, 2019, he proved that again by trading away a star player who was crucial to the back-to-back Stanley Cup-winning playoff runs in 2016 and 2017.
According to some experts, Phil Kessel should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2016 and maybe even in 2017. In the 2017-18 season, the speedy right-winger managed to put up more goals and points than the Penguins’ star captain Sidney Crosby.
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In the following season, the team was alarmingly swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. Rutherford then saw the Cup window for his core players Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang closing, which motivated him to step up and make some changes. After some later-confirmed rumors, Kessel found himself part of a deal that sent him to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. But how has that trade worked out for both parties?
Kessel’s Season with the Coyotes
Since No. 81’s most significant asset is his offensive upside, Coyotes GM John Chayka acquired Kessel to help young attackers like Nick Schmaltz, Clayton Keller, Christian Dvorak elevate their game. In the 2018-19 season, the team ranked 3rd-worst in average goals per game (G/GP).
Although they improved in scoring, it probably wasn’t in the way Chayka planned. The Coyotes, led by former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet, increased production from 2.5 G/GP to 2.7 this season, but surprisingly, Kessel wasn’t the key factor.
In the 2019-20 regular season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, the two-time Stanley Cup champion totaled only 14 goals in 70 games. It was the worst performance of his career since his rookie season with the Boston Bruins when he put up 11 goals in the same number of games. Plus, it comes from a winger with a deadly wrist shot who hit the 30-goal plateau six times.
However, as Kessel has shown the hockey world many times, he is a fighter who can bounce back and be a difference-maker once again. His contract runs through the 2021-22 season, with the cap hit of $6.8 million. Having an experienced veteran for two more years could still pay off for the Coyotes. Yet, given the Penguins’ complicated salary cap situation, Rutherford did the right thing by trading Kessel away.
The Galchenyuk Misfortune
In return for the aging Kessel, the Penguins got a young attacker with tons of potential who can play both center and on the wing. Galchenyuk has been looking for his former self since his days with the Montreal Canadiens, and Pittsburgh seemed like a very good fit and a place to grow.
Unfortunately, not even playing alongside Crosby and Malkin helped. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan also gave Galchenyuk minutes on the top power-play unit, but despite his best efforts, the 26-year-old simply couldn’t solidify his spot in the lineup. After 45 games, he netted only 5 goals and 17 points. Nevertheless, there was one person who anticipated what was going to happen.
Tocchet, in fact, even warned Sullivan after the trade that he didn’t think Galchenyuk was going to be a good fit with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin because of his penchant for cutting to the center of the ice when he possesses the puck,Josh Yohe (from ‘One year later, the truth about why the Penguins traded Phil Kessel,’ The Athletic, 06/29/2020).
Therefore, Rutherford and Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin agreed on a deal that would send Galchenyuk, talented puck-moving defenseman Calen Addison, and a conditional 1st-round pick to the Wild for forward Jason Zucker. The former 30-goal scorer put up a solid stat line of 6 goals and 12 points in just 15 games with the Penguins.
The Trade That Never Happened
A deal with the Wild was on the table before the Zucker for Galchenyuk trade. The Penguins initially planned to send Kessel and Jack Johnson to Minnesota in exchange for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. However, Kessel used his right to veto the trade. In the end, the outcome would have been similar; the Penguins would have acquired a solid winger who seems to fit in just fine with the team, and a top-9 center, all while not losing Addison and a first-round pick.
According to dobberprospects.com, Addison has all the tools needed to become a power-play quarterback in the NHL. To be fair though, Rutherford managed to bring in another solid defender with the potential to earn a stable top-four role in Joseph.
The 21-year-old Canadian was drafted by the Coyotes in the first round, 23rd overall in 2017. After five seasons in the QMJHL, he spent the 2019-20 season with the Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins and established himself as a reliable stay-at-home defenseman. What’s holding him back from making the Penguins roster next season might be his lack of offensive upside. In 52 games in the AHL, Joseph scored 3 times and totaled 17 points.
What could hurt the Penguins more, though, is losing the 2020 1st-round pick. This year’s draft class is stacked with future NHL stars, and thus nearly every pick in the opening round could be a difference-maker.
All-in-all, Rutherford found the winger he had been looking for since Kessel’s departure. Although the journey itself wasn’t the smoothest, and he lost some interesting pieces along the way, the Penguins are ready for the ultimate goal: to win another Stanley Cup.