Today at 12 pm ET, the free agent market will open up and the Penguins are expected to make several moves to help improve the team to become a Cup contender again. The player they have been tied to the most in rumors however is Phil Kessel, not a free agent, but available for trade. Toronto put Kessel on the trade market to help rebuild a franchise that has been in shambles for most of recent memory. Pittsburgh is very interested in bringing the 27 year old winger to play alongside Crosby or Malkin, salivating at the upside of what the gifted Kessel could bring to the table offensively. But what will it take to bring Kessel to Pittsburgh?
Pens GM Jim Rutherford has been patient throughout this process of bringing in help to the top 6 forward situation. Many expected him to make a move during the NHL Draft this past weekend, but Rutherford stood pat, waiting for the right opportunity to make an offer Toronto can’t refuse. Rutherford has been known in the past to be a little trigger happy when it comes to making trades (see Despres for Lovejoy at last years trade deadline). Rutherford’s patience here may end up paying off. It’s no surprise that Toronto reportedly wants either Maata or Pouliot. According to a recent report, they’d prefer Maata per Mike Babcock. Babcock compared Maata’s talent to Nick Lidstrom, a defenseman Babcock has just a little bit of history with. The Penguins organization however is very reluctant to trade away the 20 year old Finnish defenseman. Another road block for the possible trade is Kessel’s $8 million cap hit. Kessel does get a $4 million bonus today, which is probably why he hasn’t been traded yet, but that still doesn’t help the cap situation for the Penguins. Two reports have come out that gives some hope to this situation though. First, during the NHL Draft, Calgary kicked the tires on trying to bring in Kessel, but nothing was done because Toronto was unwilling to retain any of Kessel’s salary. They did however offer to take on contracts to help alleviate for Kessel’s large cap hit. Second, reportedly, Toronto told an undisclosed team they were willing to eat $2 million of the cap hit. I don’t know if this undisclosed team is the Penguins or not, but maybe if the Pens offer enough, Toronto would be willing to retain some of Kessel’s salary. Taking in all of this information, I believe it will take something similar to this to get Kessel in a Penguins sweater:
Maple Leafs get: Derrick Pouliot, Chris Kunitz, Rob Scuderi, Scott Wilson, 2016 1st Round Pick
Penguins get: Phil Kessel, low-mid level prospect
It sounds like a lot to give up for Kessel. And it is. But you have to think from Toronto’s side here. Pouliot, Wilson, and the draft pick would be where they’re getting any actual value. Kunitz and Scuderi would be just to dump salary. Kunitz’s cap hit is $3.85 million and Scuderi’s is $3.375 million. Together that’s $7.225 million dumped to make room for Kessel’s $8 million. Kunitz would only be of any value for a season or two, and I believe if Scuderi is part of the deal, Toronto won’t retain any of Kessel’s salary. However, this does free up just a little bit of space to possibly go after powerplay quarterback Sergei Gonchar, who the Penguins are also interested in. I don’t believe Toronto sees Brandon Sutter as a guy you can build a package around for Kessel. They want someone mega talented and who has more prime years ahead of him. I believe Sutter is in his prime now. Maata’s and Pouliot’s best days are ahead of them. Centering the package around Pouliot may be enough to get Toronto to trade with Pittsburgh. The silver lining with giving up a prospect like Pouliot to get a player like Kessel is that Kessel is under contract for seven more seasons. The gives you a pretty good size window to have your core to be Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, Maata, and Fleury. That’s a pretty good core to content for at least one Stanley Cup.
Getting Kessel is risky. Not necessarily is how he would produce, but in what you have to give up to get him. But you have to give up something to get something. Let’s see what the Penguins actually do here, and see if Rutherford still has that tendency to be trigger happy or if he waits patiently for the right deal to come to him.