After an offseason full of trade rumors, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally broke ties with superstar winger Phil Kessel, sending him out west to join the Arizona Coyotes. Coming back to Pittsburgh will be forward Alex Galchenyuk and defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
Looking at the short-term effects, the Penguins’ offense is obviously not as dangerous without Kessel in the lineup. Over the last two seasons, the 31-year-old totaled 61 goals and 174 points, tying Aleksander Barkov for the 13th-highest point total in the league during that span. In the same sample size, Galchenyuk scored just 92 points, tied for 127th in the NHL.
No one is expecting Galchenyuk to replace Kessel. However, his presence does have its benefits. The 25-year-old will add a bit more youth to the Penguins lineup and also give the team some flexibility both on and off the ice.
Penguins Add Versatility to Lineup
Kessel was locked into his role as a second-line right winger over the last few seasons and that likely never would’ve changed. The newly-acquired Galchenyuk doesn’t really have a concrete role, which could end up being a good thing for the Penguins next season. The 6-foot-1 forward will most likely be a top-nine winger, but which center will he pair with?
Kessel has one of the best shot releases in hockey, and while Galchenyuk can’t compare, he does have a solid wrister of his own. He can also score some dirty goals down low in front of the crease. The 25-year-old could skate next to Evgeni Malkin on the second line in place of Kessel. Head coach Mike Sullivan may want to try Patric Hornqvist in that spot first, likely moving Galchenyuk to Nick Bjugstad’s wing on the third line.
Meanwhile, Joseph isn’t ready for NHL action yet, but he comes to an organization that desperately need prospect depth, especially on the blue line. He turned 20 years old on Monday and should get his first taste of AHL action with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this upcoming season. Joseph certainly has some pedigree as he was a first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Joseph has been touted for his high hockey IQ and offensive upside. He shows all the tools of being a future top-four defenseman at the NHL level. The 6-foot-2, 168-pound blue line prospect totaled 140 points in 235 career games at the QMJHL level. His high-end potential could make this trade look much better in just a few years.
Will Pittsburgh Be More Active in Free Agency?
The Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap cleared up an extra $1.9 million for the Penguins this offseason and $6.8 million for the following two offseasons. Galchenyuk will likely command a similar deal to what Kessel had if Pittsburgh tried to re-sign him. However, if not, it would give the team some much-needed cap flexibility.
Next offseason, forward Jared McCann and goalie Matt Murray will both be restricted free agents. Neither will be particularly cheap and the team will prioritize retaining those two. That doesn’t even take into account that defenseman Justin Schultz is set to be an unrestricted free agent.
The financial flexibility was likely a key reason for the dumping of Kessel’s contract. The Penguins were going to be right up against the cap ceiling but might have a shot at making a few small moves when free agency opens up as the team has just over $5 million in cap space now.
The Penguins currently have 10 forwards under contract with restricted free agents Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese both needing new contracts. Should the team be active in the free agency market, they’ll likely look to add some low-cost forward depth.
While Penguins fans were likely upset at the news of Kessel’s trade, the deal actually has plenty of upside for the team. Pittsburgh will need to improve the offense, but the extra cap space should make that much easier. Perhaps the most important aspect, Joseph could become an impact defenseman for the Penguins in the near future.