Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
July 2, 2019
Following the Penguins’ hasty exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford hinted that some big-time changes may be in store.
It didn’t take long for hockey enthusiasts to speculate who Rutherford was alluding to — Phil Kessel.
The right winger, who won two Stanley Cups in his four years with the Penguins, was widely thought to be on the trading block. Now, those rumors have come to fruition.
Kessel, who joined the Penguins in 2015 via a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is now headed west to join the Arizona Coyotes. He will be reunited with former Pittsburgh assistant coach Rick Tocchet, now head coach of the Coyotes.
It wasn’t a straightforward path to Glendale, though. Back in May, Rutherford allegedly attempted to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild, but the right winger rejected the move per his no-trade clause.
It seemed as though Kessel would remain a member of the Penguins, and Rutherford even said as much in recent weeks. Rutherford admitted he had a deal in place with Minnesota, but that Kessel denied it.
However, Rutherford eventually found a suitor in Arizona. Kessel was clearly okay with joining the Coyotes, perhaps thanks to his well-documented warm relationship with Tocchet.
Whatever Kessel’s reason for approving the decision was, the transaction still marks the end of an iconic era for the Penguins. Kessel was essential to back-to-back championships.
In every year with Pittsburgh, he played all 82 games of the regular season. He scored at least 20 goals every year. He notched 40 assists or more in all but one year. In the two Cup runs, he posted 18 goals and 27 assists.
With that being said, it was time for Kessel to go. He is still a talented player, but there was a stale feeling surrounding the Penguins, and him especially, following their last two playoff disappointments.
Kessel went the month of February without scoring a goal. He had a plus-minus of minus-19 for the year. His defensive hustle was an area of concern. His relationships with Rutherford, and especially head coach Mike Sullivan, have been shaky at best.
Furthermore, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are edging toward the end of their respective primes. Kessel is, too. Keeping an aging core together could have spelled trouble for the Penguins. Older stars are expensive, and their production can decline steeply without much warning.
It was smart of Rutherford to ship Kessel out of town. He made it clear that as valuable as Kessel has been, the Penguins can’t maintain roster consistency if they want to win another Cup soon.
What makes the decision even better is the key player Rutherford got in return — Alex Galchenyuk.
Galchenyuk, the former third-overall pick in the NHL Draft, is a very “Penguins-esque” player, if you will. He’s a skilled forward with sizable potential and solid speed.
However, after a 30-goal season in 2015-16, Galchenyuk hasn’t scored even 20 in any of the ensuing three seasons. He has, by the lofty standards of a top pick, under-achieved in some regards. He is clearly a step below Kessel.
Even so, it’s worth noting that Kessel was widely viewed as an underachieving player when he joined the Penguins, yet he found unprecedented success in Pittsburgh. Kessel is a more prolific scorer than Galchenyuk, but the point remains that, like Kessel, the 25-year-old can rejuvenate his career as a Penguin.
Frankly, this seems to be a good deal for both teams. Kessel provides stardom and scoring power to an up-and-coming Coyotes team. Galchenyuk, with his youth, speed and scoring ability, is an excellent fit for a Penguins team looking to get the most out of this roster before Crosby and Malkin exit their primes.
Following the deal, Kessel said he’ll have fond memories of the Pittsburgh fans.
On a conference call with reporters, he said, “I had a great time there… The city and the fans were great to me.”
They’ll largely feel the same way. His stint in the Steel City will be fondly remembered. He wasn’t just a crucial member of two Cup teams, but a fan favorite. He defied expectations in helping to bring a listless Penguins team back to the highest platform in professional hockey.
Nevertheless, it was time to move on. For both him and the Penguins organization, this was the right move.