As offseason trade rumors continue to swirl, it appears that Phil Kessel won’t be wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins sweater during the 2019-20 NHL season. The team was apparently in deep talks to send him to the Minnesota Wild before he used his power to veto the trade with his modified no-trade clause.
Kessel has an eight-team list that Pittsburgh is free to trade him to, though it’s unclear which teams made the cut. The Penguins can negotiate with the other 22 NHL franchises, but their star winger would have to waive his clause. Unfortunately for the team, it doesn’t seem like he’ll go for it.
Whatever team does try to land Kessel will need some breathing room when it comes to their salary situation. He carries a $6.8 million cap hit, as Toronto retained $1.2 million per year for the remainder of the contract, which expires after the 2021-22 campaign. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a hefty price for a player with Stanley Cup experience that’s racked up over 300 points in four seasons with Pittsburgh.
It’s clear that the 31-year-old would prefer to play for a contender, narrowing down the list of potential suitors for Pittsburgh to negotiate with. Not too many teams are contenders with cap room and interested to make a big splash by shaking up the roster. However, there are a few teams that could fit the mold just enough.
St. Louis Blues
If Kessel wants to suit up for another contender, what better team than the current Western Conference champions? The St. Louis Blues are looking at nearly $19 million in cap space next season and not too many key players to re-sign besides rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Because Binnington has clearly become the Blues’ top netminder, the team could look to move Jake Allen and his $4.35 million cap-hit as well to free up some additional space.
St. Louis scored 244 goals during the regular season, matching the league average exactly. Kessel could quickly slot into a top-six role, most likely playing on Ryan O’Reilly’s wing with Vladimir Tarasenko usually skating alongside Brayden Schenn. The Blues are set up to contend for a title for the next several seasons, and making a big splash would certainly increase their chances.
Unfortunately, St. Louis doesn’t have much NHL-level talent that can be traded. Tyler Bozak is a possibility, but he has chemistry with Kessel from their days together with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Alex Steen has a full no-trade clause. Would Pittsburgh be willing to move their star winger without an impact NHL talent in return?
Another team out west, the Colorado Avalanche were one game away from reaching the Conference Final this season. The team is loaded with talent up top, including Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, and has roughly $37 million in cap space for next season. Colorado will be very active this offseason, as the team needs to boost its offensive depth and blue line.
The Avalanche will be busy trying to re-sign several of their own forwards, including Rantanen, Vladislav Kamenev, J.T. Compher, and others. Still, with the amount of cap space they have, acquiring Kessel to make the forward group deeper shouldn’t be an issue. At first glance, Kessel could settle into the first line with MacKinnon if the team wants to use Rantanen on the second line to even things out.
To offset some salary, Colorado may look to send Carl Soderberg to the Penguins. The 33-year-old has one year remaining with a $4.75 million cap hit. The Avalanche have plenty of draft capital and solid prospects in the system, though elite, young defensemen such as Cale Makar and Conor Timmins are likely off the table.
Finally, there’s the notorious Carolina Hurricanes. This would be the least likely of the three, as the Penguins probably wouldn’t want to trade a top-tier player within the Metropolitan Division. However, the Eastern Conference runner-ups have just under $29 million in cap space with only a few important names to re-sign, including Sebastian Aho and Petr Mrazek.
The addition of Kessel would give the Hurricanes a much more dynamic offense and give them several interesting options to construct the top two line. His goal-scoring prowess could fit in nicely on a line with Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter. Carolina should be looking to bolster the offense despite a conference final appearance; the team was swept by the Boston Bruins and managed to score just five goals.
Carolina is in a similar situation that St. Louis finds itself in. Most NHL-ready trade pieces the team has are young and likely off the table in trade discussions. However, the Hurricanes have racked up plenty of extra draft picks over the next two years; they have two additional second-round picks this year and two extra third-round selections next offseason.
Given Kessel’s partial no-trade clause and Pittsburgh likely still looking for a quality return, trading him is going to be difficult. However, it appears the team is set on doing just that, even if that means getting a less-than-ideal return for the star. While they may not get back immediate NHL help, the Penguins should at least be able to inject the system with fresh talent.