Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Pittsburgh Penguins are shopping an incredibly productive winger in the hopes that the move will improve not their skill level or goal scoring but their overall style of play.
It describes the summer of 2019, with Phil Kessel on the block. It also describes the summer of 2014 when the Penguins were about to send James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist.
Here’s a look at what’s the same and what’s different between the situations.
• Kessel is one of 15 players to score at a point-per-game pace in each of the last two seasons. In the summer of 2014, only five players had scored more goals over the previous three seasons than Neal.
Neither player was on the trading block because of production. They were available because the team was trying to become harder to play against.
In 2014, that meant the offensive zone. The Penguins were coming off a series where they blew a 3-1 lead by scoring a total of three goals in the final three games against the New York Rangers. They wanted to play less on the perimeter and more in the dirty areas of the ice.
Today, it refers to a 200-foot game. Coach Mike Sullivan has cited a need to reduce goals and odd-man rushes against and bad decisions with the puck and increase cooperative play.
• In the immediate aftermath of the trade that sent Neal to Nashville for Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, opinions on the deal ranged from lukewarm to hostile.
One blog, for instance, called the trade bizarre, downright destructive and pointless. Many on the internet decried the lack of complementary pieces coming back from Nashville. A better player than Spaling and a high draft pick would have made the deal much more popular.
If and when Kessel is traded, the reaction is likely to be the same. He’s a beloved figure and almost certainly will be the best player included in the deal.
• The circumstances in the coach’s office and general manager’s chair are completely different.
These days, Sullivan and Jim Rutherford are looking to end a short run of two unsuccessful postseasons. Their most recent championship isn’t a distant memory. They think they know exactly what the team needs to get back to those heights.
In 2014, Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston were freshly hired and the team was looking to end a streak of five straight disappointing postseasons. The culture of the team was changing dramatically, regardless of what deals were made at the draft.
• Kessel’s no-trade clause presents far more complications than Rutherford ran into when trying to trade Neal.
Kessel can only be moved to eight teams without prior consent. He has already reportedly vetoed a trade to Minnesota that would have brought Jason Zucker in return.
Those restrictions might force Rutherford to move Kessel in a deal centered around draft picks or prospects. If that happens, he almost certainly will immediately add a top-six forward in free agency, but still, that’s a different process than the hockey deal he made in 2014.
The Hornqvist trade ended up being hailed as a massive success.
While hiring Sullivan as a coach and adding Kessel in trade obviously played a massive role in the back-to-back championships, it’s hard to imagine the feat could have been accomplished without a heart-and-soul leader like Hornqvist in the locker room and on the ice.
In that sense, a potential Kessel trade this summer has a lot to live up to.