Mark Madden: Phil Kessel hit his sell-by date; Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acted
Five years ago, Jim Rutherford traded a point-per-game player for a guy who wasn’t.
On June 27, 2014, the Penguins sent winger James Neal to Nashville for winger Patric Hornqvist. Neal had 61 points in 59 games the season prior. Hornqvist had 53 points in 76 games.
Neal’s production can’t be denied. But a disproportionate amount of his points (43%) came on the power play. It was worried he was a negative influence on linemate Evgeni Malkin. Neal’s commitment to much besides points was questioned.
Some of that was reality. Some was perception. (The notion of one grown man having responsibility for being an untoward influence on another grown man is laughable.)
But Rutherford, who was appointed GM just three weeks prior, wanted to change the Penguins’ culture. Neal was the sacrificial lamb.
It worked, or at least seemed to. The Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and ’17.
Did the culture really change, or was that assigned after the fact of winning? Did Neal hurt that much? Did Hornqvist help that much? You’ve got to trust the tangible and disregard the abstract.
Now, finding his team at a similar crossroads after a dissatisfying season, Rutherford has made a similar move.
Winger Phil Kessel has been sent to Arizona, where his bromance with former Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet will be reignited. (For a while. As Arizona’s coach, Tocchet won’t have time to micromanage Kessel. It’s a different dynamic.)
Forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph came from Arizona in return.
Galchenyuk, 25, is adequate. He, too, gets a disproportionate amount of his points (51 percent) on the power play, and he won’t be on the top unit with the Penguins. Kris Letang figures to take Kessel’s spot on the left half-wall, which reduces play-making from that spot but helps with zone entry and cuts down significantly on short-handed opportunities allowed. Justin Schultz goes up top.
Galchenyuk is only marginally better defensively than Kessel. He was minus-19 last season, same as Kessel. He had 41 points, half as many as Kessel.
Galchenyuk figures to play on Malkin’s left wing and, at 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, provides some size at that spot (though he’s not a dynamic physical presence).
He is in a contract year, so he ought to be motivated. The Penguins aren’t picking up any of Kessel’s paycheck, so the swap saves them $1.9 million under the salary cap.
Joseph, 20, might be the key figure in the deal for the Penguins. A first-round pick in 2017, he’s got the skating, skill and smarts. But he’s listed at 6-2, 163. He makes Matt Murray look like Brock Lesnar. Eat something, I’m begging you.
Surrendering Joseph makes the deal a bit odd from Arizona’s standpoint. For the Coyotes, the future isn’t now. But with new ownership on the horizon, Tocchet and GM John Chayka need to make an impression if they want to maintain employment.
For the Penguins, the deal wasn’t about acquiring Galchenyuk and Joseph. That’s decent return, but that’s not the point.
The Penguins just needed to be rid of Kessel.
As Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons tweeted, “Phil Kessel’s like a bad house guest. Eventually you need him to leave. This is three teams Kessel’s scored for, and three teams that couldn’t wait for him to leave.”
That’s true. Kessel’s 31 and productive, yet he’s been traded three times. Over time, his bad overtakes his good. He just won’t change. Tocchet knows exactly what he’s getting and knows no adjustments are to be made.
Being traded doesn’t diminish what Kessel did in Pittsburgh. He contributed mightily to two Stanley Cups. But that was then.
I like Kessel. Interviewing him was a challenge. He didn’t suffer fools or foolish questions. He liked playing the heel where the media was concerned, but that seemed an act to minimize time wasted.
Kessel has an odd sort of popularity among Penguins fans, one based largely on memes and GIFs.
He had an odd sort of popularity in the Penguins dressing room, too. He was embraced but as a cartoon character. Kessel socialized mostly with his poker buddies. His departure won’t cause unrest the way Carl Hagelin’s did.
Kessel wanted out. Despite his denials, he asked to be traded on several occasions but often backed off.
Kessel had an odd run in Pittsburgh. He had 59 and 70 points, respectively, in his first two seasons with the Penguins but was a plus player, and the Penguins won the Cup both years. He had 92 and 82 points, respectively, in his last two seasons but was a minus player, and the Penguins stumbled in the playoffs.
It’s cliche to say, but Kessel has a sell-by date. He hit it, and Rutherford acted. Any debate beyond that is over-complicating.