Tim Benz: With Phil Kessel gone, others with Penguins have to answer bell
Penguins fans finally have an answer to a pressing question: “Will the Pens eventually trade Phil Kessel?”
On Saturday night, that answer became “yes.” The club hammered out a deal to send its 82-point winger, prospect Dane Birks and a draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defensive prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph.
However, this answer creates a lot more questions under one general heading: “Now what?”
Now what, Jim Rutherford?
Rutherford made his intentions clear heading into the offseason. He wanted to make the Penguins hungrier, less difficult to coach and tougher to play against.
Perhaps the first goal has been accomplished. Galchenyuk and Dominik Kahun (via the Olli Maatta trade to Chicago) are young players still looking for their first Stanley Cup.
The second box has been partially checked by moving Kessel.
Head coach Mike Sullivan no longer has to deal with Kessel’s lack of defensive intensity and responsibility. Sullivan no longer has to handle Kessel’s insistence to play a one-way, his-way brand of hockey. And he no longer has to rationalize Kessel’s reported displeasure — at least since the departures of Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin — over occasionally having to carry his own third line.
But how Kessel’s absence makes other players, such as Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, easier to coach is unclear. And how simply adding “skillsy” young forwards such as Galchenyuk and Kahun is a mystery in that context, too.
Now what, Mike Sullivan?
If Sullivan found Kessel’s 82 points last season more trouble than they were worth, now he must find a way to replace them.
Kahun and Galchenyuk combined for 78 points last season.
Yet, 21 of Galchenyuk’s 41 points came on the power play. And he probably won’t get that opportunity on the first unit with the Penguins.
Whether it was Letang, Malkin or anyone else on the remaining roster that Sullivan found hard to reach, he better figure out a way to do so now.
Now what, Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle?
Whoever controls the bank account Rutherford gets to play with, they need to decide whether moving on from Kessel now makes it more palatable to extend Sullivan.
The coach is heading into the last year of his contract. And if the rub between his style and his star players went beyond Kessel, then he best adapt or he may not make it past Christmas if the Penguins get off to a bad start.
If ownership feels Kessel was the one rebuffing Sullivan’s system, they should extend the coach and empower him to govern the way he sees fit, as he did when first arrived, instead of trying to cater to the whims of certain stars.
Now what, Evgeni Malkin?
Some have speculated that Malkin’s down season was at least partially attributable to Kessel’s petulance and how Sullivan viewed Kessel’s disdain for responsible play.
If Geno’s play doesn’t improve this year, those looking to make excuses for him are going to need a new one.
Not only is Malkin going to need a return to form, he also may need to help accelerate the play of a young forward dropped on his line such as Kahun, Galchenyuk or maybe Jared McCann.
Now what, Patric Hornqvist?
Hornqvist has played well with Malkin in the past. Perhaps Malkin is encouraged to shoot more with Hornqvist’s presence in front of the net. Maybe it’s Hornqvist who goes to that right-wing spot with No. 71 in an effort to rediscover what left Hornqvist’s game last year after his concussion issues.
If there is anything left to discover.
Now what, Alex Galchenyuk?
Galchenyuk comes to the Penguins as a player with a similar, yet not as proficient, reputation to the one Kessel had when he arrived in Pittsburgh.
He’s deemed to be a talented player that hasn’t yet achieved his lofty potential and is already on his third team before his 26th birthday.
If Galchenyuk has more to offer than his 255 points in 418 games, he better offer it fast and he better offer it at even strength.
After all, Maatta is gone. So the Penguins’ fan base is going to be looking for a new whipping boy. And the Phil DePhense Phoundation will be quick to attack the guy who replaced their GIF-hero.