Penguins Would Make a Mistake By Bringing Kessel Back

One of the biggest potential trade deadline moves is Phil Kessel returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins, per David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period. Kessel played four seasons for the team in 2015-16 through 2018-19, which makes the salient rumor that much juicier. The article also mentioned that Kessel has been eyed by the Boston Bruins, with whom he began his NHL career.

Phil Kessel Penguins
Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kessel is currently in his third season with the Arizona Coyotes, where his production has slowed. In 60 games this season, he has scored just six goals and only four at even-strength. Despite those stats, it’s worth noting that he has still retained much of his playmaking ability with 31 assists on the year. His dedication to his NHL career has brought him to an impressive consecutive games streak of 956, solidifying his role as one of the league’s ironmen. Considering the deep history between Kessel and the Penguins, an evaluation of the pros and cons of this potential transaction is imperative.

Pros to Acquiring Kessel

The late 2010s proved to be one of the most dominant periods for the Penguins, lifting two Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017; the first back-to-back wins since Scotty Bowman led the Detroit Red Wings to consecutive championships in 1997 and 1998. Although Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led the charge, Kessel was one of the most important pieces to that stretch of the Penguins’ success.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Kessel’s contributions to the Penguins dynasty were nothing short of magical. In the black and gold, he scored 110 goals with 193 assists, playing in all 328 games over four seasons. Forming a ferociously offensive third line with centerman Nick Bonino and winger Carl Hagelin, Kessel helped propel the team to glory. Perhaps a reunion with some of his old teammates could be beneficial in bringing him out of a scoring slump and, better yet, getting another shot at the Cup.

Related: Penguins Could Benefit From Looking into Deadline Rentals

The Coyotes have apparently put Kessel on the market for a third-round draft pick in addition to retaining half of his salary. With that asking price, general manager Ron Hextall might be willing to bite, considering his comments on pursuing a forward to fortify his team’s power upfront.

Cons to Acquiring Kessel

Although Kessel was beloved by many of his Penguin teammates and their notorious fanbase during his tenure, a handful of others in the organization had their own opinion of his time with the team. Unfortunately, a handful of those others happen to be crucial pieces of their foundation.

Phil Kessel, Thomas Greiss
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Phil Kessel (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

During the 2018-19 season, tensions grew between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan. An anonymous former Penguin noted that Kessel did not necessarily dislike Sullivan personally, yet he was a player with a bit of an authority issue.

Related: Blackhawks Have 4 Penguins Targets in Fleury Blockbuster

Due to the tight-knit, family-like culture of the Penguins’ locker room, Malkin felt caught in the crossfire between the coach-versus-player incidents. Despite his denial, multiple sources have said Malkin eventually became so overwhelmed that he told management to trade him in the event that Kessel would re-sign. Late in the season, Kessel and Malkin were seen engaging in verbal altercations on the bench, on more than one occasion.

Bottom Line: Kessel is a Liability

Aside from the old rocky off-ice relationships, Kessel simply isn’t producing at the high level he is expected to. Of course, a large portion of the blame is on the lackluster Coyotes and their absence of a proficient talent pool. During his three seasons in Arizona, Kessel has scored only 40 goals; which was once the expectation for a single-season performance.

Phil Kessel Arizona Coyotes
Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kessel’s 118 points as a Coyote surely do not amount to his 303 points as a Penguin, but the current factors at play point to keeping him out of Pittsburgh. Kessel may have shined as a lovable addition, however, the possibility of renewing a previous conflict within the team is just the distraction the Penguins should stay away from in their quest to continue a winning culture this postseason.

Related: Penguins Trade Likely to Include Marino or Petterson

The Penguins have known what it takes to chase a Stanley Cup championship as much as any other modern NHL dynasty. What is yet to be seen, however, is the competence of Hextall’s decision-making in the heat of a transaction period critical to the Penguins’ postseason aspirations. Trading for Kessel might not be the worst choice, although avoiding such a move is ultimately in the best interest of the Penguins’ front office.

Sign up for our regular 'Penguins Newsletter' for all the latest.