Perhaps no team this year has been more frustrating to watch than the Pittsburgh Penguins. With a plethora of talent, the Penguins have struggled to string wins together, but currently find themselves at 12-10-6 and remarkably only one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Whether it be inconsistent goaltending or a lack of secondary scoring, there has been a lot of finger pointing as to where the actual problem lies.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has already pulled the trigger on two big trades this year – sending Carl Hagelin to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Tanner Pearson, and most recently shipping Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Marcus Pettersson – but the rumor mill has been circulating that Phil Kessel may be the next Penguins forward to find a new home.
Personally, I think it would be asinine to trade Phil the Thrill. Often overlooked by the heroic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel is a huge part of the Penguins’ often frightening offensive attack. Kessel is currently tied for the team lead in points with 33, and here are just a few reasons why trading him would be a huge regret.
The Return Will Be Underwhelming
While Kessel is one of the most talented forwards in the NHL, there is almost zero chance that the return the Penguins would get for him would be adequate. At the ripe age of 31, Kessel’s trade value is immediately diminished. While the Penguins have a lot of weaknesses that need addressed, the only trade partner that makes sense is a team who would take him on as a loan as they make an immediate run toward a Stanley Cup.
If one of the top teams in the NHL lose a top-line winger to injury, such as Nikita Kucherov, Mitch Marner, or Blake Wheeler, then a possible trading partner may open up as the deadline approaches, but no team making a run toward the Stanley Cup is going to be willing to give up an important piece of their franchise in order to make the trade happen.
If the Penguins were to trade Kessel, it would likely be for a combination of draft picks and prospects. In other words, it would be a huge gamble. Kessel is a superstar, and therefore deems a superstar return, but if a trade partner did eventually open up, the return would likely be quite underwhelming and leave Penguins fans fuming.
The Perfect Contract
If Kessel’s contract was going to expire at the end of the year and he was due for a big raise, then I could understand the appeal of trading him away. When an elite talent is unlikely to re-sign at the end of the year, it’s sometimes best to put him on the trading block and see what type of return you can get.
A perfect example would be Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Panarin is a comparable talent to Kessel, but his contract expires at the end of the season and he has expressed zero interest in returning to the Blue Jackets. Even with Columbus contending for a playoff spot, they will likely try to trade him as the deadline approaches knowing that he is not going to re-sign in the offseason. They may end up keeping him for one last playoff run if there isn’t a suitable bidder, but a trade in that scenario at least makes sense.
Kessel is currently signed through the 2021-22 season at a $6.8 million cap hit, and with the salary cap projected at $83 million for the 2019-20 season, and Kessel showing no signs of slowing down, he is currently on the perfect contract. The Penguins would be foolish to ship away a player who not only is leading the team in scoring, but also signed to an extremely friendly deal.
Too Early To Rebuild
In a few years, the Penguins will need to take a hard look at how they are going to handle the declination of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang. But for now, all four players are signed for the next four seasons, and all four players are still playing well. With a core group that talented, it is way too early to begin rebuilding and thinking about life after Crosby and Malkin. As you can see, there is chemistry just oozing throughout the lineup.
“It’s not who I am underneath [the helmet], but what I do that defines me.”
-Phil Kessel -Batman pic.twitter.com/WnHIiTH7hk
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 7, 2018
The Penguins are still in win now mode, and when you need to win now, you don’t trade your leading scorer. If Kessel was having a bad year, looked slow on his feet, or showed complete disinterest in the franchise, then I could understand an argument that he should be moved, but none of these things have happened.
There are definitely moves that need to be made to put the Penguins in a better position. They need more secondary scoring, more consistent goaltending, and better play on the back end, but moving Kessel is not the solution to their problems. Perhaps a team will offer something GM Jim Rutherford cannot refuse, but the return better be mighty, or trading Kessel is something that the Penguins will regret for years.