The Pittsburgh Penguins had a down season by their standards, bowing out of the playoffs early after a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. While some considered this a monumental upset, this season’s iteration of the Penguins was not quite the same force that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
In TSN’s list of possible Trade Bait released on May 17, Phil Kessel was listed as the top offseason trade target in the league. On the surface, some may question the logic of Pittsburgh trading away their second-leading scorer from this season, especially one locked in at a bargain cap hit of $6.8 million.
However, as general manager Jim Rutherford mentioned in his end-of-season interview, “there could be big, big changes” to the team’s current roster. Jake Guentzel’s new long-term extension kicks in next season, and with just under $4 million in cap space as of now, the Penguins are without much room to maneuver or add to their roster without clearing some cap space. If the Penguins are actually looking to move their star winger, what teams could show the most interest in the 31-year-old all-star? And which teams could offer Pittsburgh the necessary return for Rutherford to pull the trigger on moving Kessel, a player who was so integral to the Penguins’ Stanley Cup runs?
One team that has previously shown interest is the Arizona Coyotes, who apparently had inquired on the American-born sniper earlier this season. At first glance, the move makes a lot of sense for the Coyotes, who have been starved for high-end offensive talent since before GM John Chayka took the reins in the summer of 2016. Rick Tocchet, the second-year coach of the Coyotes, previously had worked with the Penguins, helping them as an assistant coach in both of their Stanley Cup wins. Despite leaving the team in 2017, Tocchet still maintains a friendship with Kessel, who reportedly built a strong relationship with the coach while he was in Pittsburgh.
In addition, the Coyotes have an impressive stockpile of young players and cheap depth that could entice the Penguins to seriously consider moving Kessel to help shore up the rest of their roster.
For the Penguins, adding young talent close to making an impact in the NHL would be a key part of any return for Kessel. Barrett Hayton, the fifth-overall selection from 2018, could be a centrepiece in a Kessel deal after nearly doubling his scoring rate in an abbreviated OHL season. In addition, Rutherford has shown a willingness to target young NHLers rather than draft picks or prospects, giving his team cheap and effective depth right away. If the Penguins opt for this route, you can expect to see players such as Christian Fischer or Lawson Crouse mentioned as possible returns.
For the Coyotes, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2012, acquiring a player of Kessel’s caliber could finally push them back into the hunt in a competitive Western Conference. Arizona’s top scorer, Clayton Keller, led the team with just 47 points, taking a big step backwards from his Calder Trophy-nominated rookie campaign. Adding a scorer as proven as Kessel could push Keller to new heights next season, as well as provide a positive veteran presence in the relatively young Coyotes locker room.
The Carolina Hurricanes are coming off their most successful season in a decade, as they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. Despite their playoff run ending in a disappointing sweep to the Boston Bruins, the Hurricanes had just about a perfect start to the Rod Brind’Amour era. Key young players like Sebastian Aho and Jaccob Slavin made the leap to star status, and first-year GM Don Waddell was able to supplement his promising young core with additions such as Nino Niederreiter and Petr Mrazek.
Just three players on the roster finished with more than 50 points (four including Niederreiter’s season totals with Minnesota), highlighting their score-by-committee approach and need for game breaking talent in their forward group.
The Hurricanes have been kicking tires all over the league in their search for more reliable offense, most notably during William Nylander’s contract holdout earlier this season. If the Penguins are serious about moving Kessel, you can expect the Hurricanes to show some interest in the veteran winger.
From the Penguins’ point of view, the Hurricanes could be an ideal trade partner. With their stable of talented young defenseman and strong prospect pool, the Hurricanes could stand as good a chance as any team at landing Kessel if they were decidedly “all-in” on acquiring a star forward, as some suggested in their pursuit of Nylander.
Young defender Brett Pesce could be a primary target for Pittsburgh, as he would shore up the right side of the Penguins’ blue line and is locked in at an affordable rate of $4.025 million for the next five seasons. If Pesce isn’t made available as he reportedly was to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina possesses a wealth of young talent for Pittsburgh to choose from. Even if Waddell scoffs at dealing budding power forward Andrei Svechnikov, former first-round draft choices Martin Necas and Jake Bean, who both excelled in the AHL this season, could be on Pittsburgh’s shortlist.
Carolina fans have plenty to be excited about, as their stockpile of young talent finally broke through in an impressive playoff run before bowing out to a deep and talented Boston team. Despite Aho’s pending salary increase, the Hurricanes have plenty of cap space to fit in Kessel’s $6.3 million cap hit. Carolina’s young defense group is arguably the best in the NHL, so adding a proven playoff performer like Kessel could push the Hurricanes towards contender status sooner rather than later.
The Stars could be a dark horse in the pursuit for Kessel, should the Penguins decide to trade him, as they struggled to score throughout the season and their lack of secondary scoring hurt them in a close series loss to the St. Louis Blues. Despite employing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, one of the most dangerous duos in the NHL, the Stars finished tied for the third-worst mark in the league with just 209 goals scored in the regular season.
General manager Jim Nill took some steps towards shoring up his team’s forward depth with the in-season additions of Mats Zuccarello and youngsters Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson, but Zuccarello can walk in unrestricted free agency this summer and the Stars’ two youngsters have less than 50 career points between them. Adding a proven scorer like Kessel could go a long way towards boosting Dallas’ sagging offense and replacing the offensive contributions of aging veteran Jason Spezza and Zuccarello if contract talks prove unsuccessful.
Dallas might not have the top-end prospect pipeline of Carolina or Arizona, but they have several NHL-ready players who could interest the Penguins. It’s unlikely Nill considers moving rookie sensation Miro Heiskanen, but Ty Dellandrea and Jason Robertson, who could both make the leap from the OHL to the NHL next season, are both promising young talents in their own right. Add in AHL contributors such as Denis Guryanov or Colton Point, and the Stars could offer the Penguins an enticing return if Kessel is on the move.
The Montreal Canadiens may have missed the playoffs this season, but it was actually a year full of positive progress made by the Habs following a busy offseason for GM Marc Bergevin. Some may have questioned the Alex Galchenyuk-for-Max Domi trade prior to last season, but Domi set career highs across the board in his first season in Montreal and filled an important centre role that the Canadiens had previously lacked.
Adding Domi to the mix alonside 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens were able to consider the centre ice position a strength throughout the season for the first time in recent history. Along with a bounce back season from Carey Price and a return to form for captain Shea Weber, Montreal was able to make a serious push for the playoffs after finishing as one of the league’s worst teams in 2017-18.
Despite a career year from Domi, the Canadiens still had their struggles finding consistent scoring, as Jonathan Drouin failed to meet expectations for the second consecutive season and the roster’s thin forward corps showed cracks. Montreal finished with just an 8.8% team shooting percentage, a bottom-10 mark in the league, as well as a pitiful power play conversion rate of 13.25%, good for second-worst in the NHL.
After missing the playoffs in three out of the last four seasons, and with the biggest hole on the roster showing rapid signs of improvement with Domi and Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens could be a sneaky bidder in the Kessel sweepstakes. With a revamped young roster and some high-performing veterans with playoff experience, Montreal is a candidate to bounce back stronger next year and compete in the playoffs even if Domi can’t replicate his career-best season. Adding a player like Phil Kessel would be a boon to the Canadiens’ underwhelming power play as well as the depth of their forward group, as it would allow them to move players like Andrew Shaw and Paul Byron into roles better suited for their skill sets.
From the Penguins’ side, Montreal could be an interesting trade partner due to their wealth of nearly NHL-ready young players. Established NHLers like Artturi Lehkonen could be on the table for Pittsburgh, as could Noah Juulsen and Ryan Poehling, who are both former first-round picks who could potentially fill an NHL roster spot as soon as next year. OHL Playoff MVP Nick Suzuki would most likely be off the table, but the Canadiens have plenty of potential trade pieces that Pittsburgh could be interested in for any potential Kessel trade.
New York Rangers
Some could question the logic in giving up young players and draft picks to acquire a veteran scorer when your team is coming off two straight losing seasons, but the New York Rangers should never be counted out of the sweepstakes for any star player made available.
GM Jeff Gorton has done a nice job rebuilding the Rangers’ pipeline quickly following a string of success that saw the Rangers trade away every first round draft pick between 2013 and 2016. The Rangers cut bait on most of their expensive veterans, acquiring five first round picks over the past two drafts and stockpiling two more for this year’s class. Due in large part to the youth movement undertaken by Gorton, the Rangers struggled to score in a major way this season, finishing 24th in the NHL in goals scored.
However, the Rangers might be closer to competing for a playoff spot than many might think. Their impressive group of young talent, which includes World Juniors star Vitali Kravtsov, will get another huge boost with the second overall pick in June. The team is still backstopped by Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist, and the future of the team’s goaltending looks like it’s in good hands with KHL star Igor Shestyorkin looking to make the jump to North America soon.
The Rangers were one of the worst teams in the league last season, but if they are as aggressive in free agency as has been rumoured all season, new Team President John Davidson could be looking to compete for a playoff spot as soon as next season. Adding a talent like Kessel to the lineup alongside Kravtsov and one of Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko could turn the Rangers around faster than anyone expected.
For the Penguins, who could still balk at the thought of trading Kessel within their own division, the Rangers’ stockpile of young forwards who could contribute sooner rather than later could lead to the most appealing trade offer of any team listed here. Lias Andersson and Libor Hajek, who have yet to establish themselves in the Rangers’ lineup, could be dangled in order to convince the Penguins to move Kessel. Other youngsters who might be pushed down the lineup soon, such as Pavel Buchnevich or Vladislav Namestnikov, could also interest Pittsburgh as potential breakout candidates alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
While the Rangers may seem an unlikely trade partner for the Penguins, their abundance of young talent and lack of long-term financial commitments already on the roster could make them one of the best fits to acquire Kessel.
It’s not often that a team looks to explore trading a five-time all star with an exceptional history of playoff production, especially one with Cup aspirations like the Penguins. However, Rutherford has been anything but shy in the past couple of seasons about pulling the trigger on moves he thinks will help improve his team.
With cap space at a premium, Rutherford possesses perhaps the most valuable trade chip in the NHL heading into the offseason. It remains to be seen if there is truth behind the Kessel trade rumours, but one thing is for sure, he will have no shortage of suitors if the Penguins decide to shake-up their roster this summer.
Joseph Aleong is an At-Large writer for THW from Toronto, Ontario. He is a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. Follow him on Twitter @josephaleong11