Penguins Forced to Trade Kessel to Keep Malkin

In what apparently had become an NHL rite of summer, the Phil Kessel trade rumors came out in full bloom for the Pittsburgh Penguins again this year, albeit a little earlier than last year with the team being swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.

Having spent the last four seasons in the Steel City, it almost seemed inevitable that Kessel would be traded this summer. Given his comments on locker clean-out day, he seemed to know it was coming and welcomed it.

Related: Penguins Trade Kessel for Depth and Cap Space

Armed with a no-trade clause that he used to block a trade to the Minnesota Wild, Kessel finally agreed to a deal that sent him to the Arizona Coyotes, along with prospect Dane Birks and a fourth-round draft in 2021. In exchange, the Penguins received forward Alex Galchenyuk and defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.

Penguins Have Their “Phil” of Kessel

In Arizona, he will be reunited with Coyotes head coach and former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet who seems to have a way of getting through to Kessel; a skill which is apparently in short supply around the NHL. Just ask former Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, among others.

Penguins forward Phil Kessel
Former Penguins forward Phil Kessel (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite extending his iron-man streak to 774 consecutive games played and being a point-per-game player for the second consecutive season and the third time in his career, Phil Kessel is moving on to his fourth different franchise which begs the question; why?

The answer is simple and not a secret to NHL fans in Boston and Toronto. Phil Kessel wants to play the game of hockey his way, whether it’s his head coach’s way or not.

Blessed with one of the best wrist shots in the game, Kessel excels on the power play and his 36 power-play points were fifth-best in the NHL last season. Although not as fast at 31 years old as he was when he was competing in the NHL’s fastest skater competition, Kessel still is able to use his speed to find open ice with the puck and relishes the opportunity to shoot off the rush in five-on-five play.

Kessel Makes Immediate Impact

When the Penguins were able to put Kessel on a line with defensively-responsible and hard-working linemates in Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, the result was the “HBK line.” This line was the driving force behind the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Kessel (right) is congratulated by teammates (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Unfortunately, the loss of Bonino in free agency after the 2017 season, along with a league-wide move to match the Penguins’ uptempo style, drove the team to adopt a more grinding and defensively-sound system; a system that Kessel seemed at times to be unwilling to play.

With Kessel reportedly demanding to play alongside Evgeni Malkin and, with the absence of a true third-line center to justify keeping him on his own line, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was forced to pair the two superstars together. The results were disappointing, to say the least.

Kessel Brings Plusses and Minuses

Despite being a career plus-91 entering last season, Malkin was an abysmal minus-25, committed a career-worst and team-leading 84 giveaways and scored just 12 even-strength goals – the fewest in a full season in his career. There were evens concerns that playing alongside Kessel had caused Malkin to adopt Kessel’s high-risk style of play to the detriment of the team.

Kessel, although tallying a league-leading 10 game-winning goals, was minus-19, was second on the team with 78 giveaways of his own, registered the fewest shots in a full season in his career and was even benched at times for lack of defensive effort.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby
Former Pittsburgh Penguin Phil Kessel celebrates his winning goal with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

With Malkin frustrated with his own play, the tension between Kessel and the coaching staff and the coaching staff being frustrated with Malkin’s play alongside Kessel, it became clear that something had to be done. There was even talk that Malkin wanted a fresh start elsewhere and would agree to a trade.

Trade Brings Cap Space, Cohesion

Fortunately for the Penguins, cooler heads prevailed. With the Penguins looking to adopt a tougher and more disciplined approach to the game, Malkin now seems ready to turn the page and the absence of Kessel and his $6.8 million cap hit will allow him to do just that.

Related: Penguins Reward Mike Sullivan With Extension

Ultimately, Kessel is what he is. He’s a fast winger who scores goals and hasn’t missed a game in 10 seasons. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem interested in being anything other than that, even if his team needs him to be.

Perhaps playing for Tocchet, plus the realization that he is on the wrong side of 30, will make him more willing to adapt his game to suit his new team. If not, those Kessel trade rumors may be popping up in the desert soon enough.

I am a retired Navy pilot now flying in the airline industry. I graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the Navy War College and Salve Regina University. I worked as a featured columnist for Bleacher Report for 3 years covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, Steelers and Penguins and now cover the Penguins for The Hockey Writers