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Analysis: What would it take for Penguins to trade Phil Kessel?

Jonathan Bombulie
| Saturday, June 2, 2018, 5:25 p.m.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel celebrates his goal on the Sabres' Chad Johnson in the third period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel celebrates his goal on the Sabres' Chad Johnson in the third period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.
PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 03:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to the start of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Phil Kessel
Getty Images
PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 03: Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins warms up prior to the start of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at PPG PAINTS Arena on May 3, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Phil Kessel
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel moves the puck up ice during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018.

Since Jim Rutherford took over as Penguins general manager in 2014, there's been a certain standard he's had to meet with almost every personnel move he has considered.

Will it make the Penguins better, if not immediately then in the very near future?

It's a perfectly reasonable standard to apply. The Penguins are built to win now, while star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still reasonably close to their prime.

Sometimes, it's an easy standard to reach. Trade a draft pick for Justin Schultz or Ron Hainsey? Sure. That helped the team immediately, even if it robbed the prospect pool of a young player who could theoretically contribute at some indeterminate point in the future.

In the case of Phil Kessel, who has been the subject of trade rumors since the Penguins were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs, meeting the standard becomes much trickier.

Is there any way the Penguins could be better team next season without Kessel on their roster?

Looking at Kessel's offensive numbers, it's hard to imagine.

This season, Kessel finished tied for seventh in the league in scoring with a career-high 92 points. He scored 34 goals. He's one of the league's elite offensive performers.

“He scores big goals. He sets up big goals. The more impact players that you have, like we have, the better chance you have of winning,” Rutherford said when discussing Kessel trade rumors last summer, sharing a sentiment that still rings true.

Kessel's even-strength numbers aren't quite as impressive as his overall stats. He finished 60th in the league in goals per 60 minutes (0.95) and 49th in points per 60 minutes (2.16). Both figures are very good, second to Malkin among players who spent the whole season with the Penguins, but not great.

Kessel's contributions on the left half-wall on the power play, however, cannot be ignored. He led the league with 42 power-play points this season, and the Penguins had the league's best success rate at 26.2 percent. Is there any way the Penguins could duplicate those numbers without Kessel?

“He's an elite talent,” an NHL scout said. “Sometimes, five-on-five, he looks like he's not fully committed. Get him on the power play, though, and he's fully committed. He makes plays. Sometimes it's high risk, but more often than not, he's making that cross-ice play for a tap-in into the net. When he's on, he's so good.”

If the Penguins were to trade Kessel, they likely wouldn't swap him for an impact player with a salary similar to the relatively reasonable $6.8 million annual cap hit they're charged for his services.

“You're not going to get close to the same player for that money unless you do one hell of a scouting job,” the scout said. “I'm not even sure that player's out there.”

The idea would be to fill two or more holes — a 200-foot, top-nine winger, preferably on the left side, to help out with scoring balance; a middle-pair type of defenseman to shore up the blue line; and prospect depth — with the Kessel return and the cap space such a move might free up.

The idea also would be for prospect Daniel Sprong to fill some of the void. With his offensive talents and defensive deficiencies, Sprong profiles as a poor man's Kessel anyway.

“He's a goal scorer,” the scout said of Sprong. “He needs to play with good players who can get him the puck. A little bit of an individual. Not a 200-foot player. I think he's fighting the same battle as Phil sometimes, as a player.”

In other words, it would probably take a perfect offer and a series of good breaks for the Penguins to deal Kessel without suffering a drop in offensive production. In fact, there are only a few reasons to think Rutherford would even try to thread that needle in the trade market this summer.

The first is a matter of value. Kessel's stock is high, and at some point — like when Jake Guentzel needs a new deal in 2019-20 or when Matt Murray's contract is up the following year — the Penguins might need to move him for cap reasons. They probably could get more in return now than later.

The second is a matter of personalities. Kessel's demeanor and style of play aren't coach-friendly. At times, Mike Sullivan has said he has tried to meet players like Kessel halfway on certain issues. If that balance is off, trouble could loom.

Unless a Kessel deal is in the cards, a reconciliation of grievances would do some good.

“You've got to somehow mend the fences, make sure he comes back in good shape,” the scout said, “and you'll have a good player again.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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