Mark Madden: Phil Kessel trade would help needed Penguins shakeup |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Phil Kessel trade would help needed Penguins shakeup

Prolific but problematic Penguins forward Phil Kessel is on the trading block

Trade speculation regarding Phil Kessel once again runs rampant.

Never mind that the Penguins have been willing to trade him for the best part of a couple years now.

The latest talk has Kessel going to Minnesota along with defenseman Jack Johnson for forwards Jason Zucker and Victor Rask. Kessel and Zucker would be the deal’s centerpieces. Johnson and Rask would be an exchange of problem contracts: Johnson has four years left on a deal that pays $3.25 million per, Rask three years remaining at an average annual value of $4 million.

That swap would relieve the glut on the left side of the Penguins’ defense and could lead to Olli Maatta staying. Or not. It depends on how much GM Jim Rutherford wants to shake up the Penguins’ roster.

That’s what this offseason mostly will be about: shaking the Penguins out of their doldrums.

The coaching staff has tired of Kessel’s quirks. He had 82 points in 82 games but was minus-19 and got 44 percent of his points on the power play. He doesn’t hit, block shots or do much on defense.

That was OK when Kessel played better. But not anymore.

Kessel gets traded a lot. He has 823 points in 996 NHL games, but this will be the third time he’s been traded. There’s a reason for that.

Kessel is a fan favorite because he’s an everyman.

He’s a locker-room favorite because he’s a cartoon character.

Some feel Kessel leads Evgeni Malkin astray, like James Neal supposedly did. But it’s hard to believe Malkin is so easily influenced at 32.

There’s no denying Kessel’s contributions to winning Stanley Cups in 2016 and ’17.

But that’s in the past. There’s no denying that, either.

There’s also no denying that the Penguins are highly unlikely to dig their way out of their malaise without a shakeup. Whether they were stale, complacent, aging or slowing down, the Penguins very rarely found any semblance of championship-caliber form this past season. The same roster won’t organically figure it out.

Depending on how cutthroat Rutherford and ownership choose to be, it’s easy to imagine coach Mike Sullivan being on the hot seat if the Penguins start poorly. Sullivan is a great coach. But coaches are disposable in the NHL. Messages are easily lost.

No complaints. The Penguins’ core has had a great run. If it doesn’t win again, it’s met expectations and perhaps then some.

But it’s worth tinkering with the roster in an attempt to squeeze out a few more drops. If it doesn’t work, at least the Penguins tried.

Zucker had 21 goals and 21 assists in 81 games last season. He had 33 goals and 31 assists the year prior, both career highs. He’s 27, four years younger than Kessel.

Zucker is signed through 2023. His cap hit is $5.5 million. Kessel’s deal runs through ’22 with a $6.8 million hit.

Zucker’s biggest quality as far as the Penguins are concerned: He’s not Kessel.

This trade doesn’t seem imminent. It may already have fallen through. Kessel’s limited no-movement clause allows him to dictate eight teams he can be traded to. The Wild are reportedly not currently one of those teams.

But if Kessel is a Penguin next season, it would be shocking.

Kessel’s tenure was always going to play out this way. He comes with an expiration date. That certainly doesn’t diminish what he did in Pittsburgh or in Boston and Toronto. It’s just how some players are.

Now Kessel will go to Minnesota, or wherever, and stay there until his bad again outweighs his good, whether in actuality or by perception.

Kessel will be remembered as an all-time great Penguin. Two Stanley Cups, two big playoffs, good production, very popular.

But all-time great Penguins get traded all the time: Like Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi. It’s not a new scenario.

Can a shakeup work? Can the Penguins be jolted back to life?

That seems a 50-50 bet.

Rutherford’s moves have to work. Malkin, who will prove too difficult to trade, has to bounce all the way back and perform at a level at or very near his peak. Sullivan must make systematic adjustments by way of conceding that the Penguins have slowed a bit. Young players with energy must be given legit opportunity, and the Penguins don’t have many of those.

That’s a lot of factors that need to come good.

If there’s a perceived villain when it comes to the Penguins potentially dealing Kessel, it’s not Kessel, his minus-19 mark and haphazard play at even strength. Heck, no.

It’s the Pittsburgh sports media, accused by the echo chamber of trying to run Kessel out of town.

If that were possible, I would have never let Antonio Brown last nine years in Pittsburgh. Don’t credit the media for having that kind of power, and don’t be stupid idiots.

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