With trade nixed, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford says he’s content keeping Phil Kessel
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has found trading winger Phil Kessel to be a difficult proposition.
So for now, he says he’s given up.
“It looks like he’ll stay here,” Rutherford said Tuesday.
According to reports, Rutherford worked out a deal to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild for winger Jason Zucker last month, but Kessel, who has a clause in his contract that allows him to specify eight teams to which he can be traded without prior consent, vetoed the move.
“He’s a good player,” Rutherford said. “He’s an impact player. He has been for us since he got here. We wouldn’t have won the Cups without him. There was a deal that came along that we thought worked for both sides, but it didn’t turn out.
“When the player starts dictating which way the trade’s going to go, it doesn’t work out for the team. So, we’ll just continue on the way we were.”
Rutherford said he doesn’t find the process frustrating, even though he wasn’t the GM who gave Kessel the no-trade clause. That was Dave Nonis in Toronto in 2013.
“When I traded for him, I knew he had it. Whether I gave it to him or whether I accepted it, I know it’s there,” Rutherford said. “And players earn those clauses. He earned that clause. He has every right to do what he’s doing.”
Rutherford also said he doesn’t think the relationship between himself or coach Mike Sullivan and Kessel needs any repairs.
“I don’t see why,” he said. “Everybody understands how our business works. I don’t think anybody’s said anything out of the ordinary or anything negative. I don’t see where that’s necessary.”
Kessel could, of course, change his tune and be more agreeable to a trade in the future. Rutherford might find a deal with one of the winger’s eight approved clubs that’s to his liking.
But as of Tuesday, he wasn’t banking on it.
“I’m not proceeding that way,” Rutherford said. “I’m proceeding as if we’re the way we ended the season with him.”
It wasn’t difficult to understand why Rutherford was looking to move Kessel after the Penguins’ season ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.
Rutherford and Sullivan determined that the team must become more committed to defense, conscientious with the puck and harder to play against to rediscover their championship form.
While Kessel remains one of only 15 NHL players to hit a point per game in each of the past two seasons, none of those desired areas of improvement are exactly his specialty.
But they can be, Rutherford said. They were during the Stanley Cup seasons of 2016-17.
“He can when he wants to,” Rutherford said.
In the days after the Penguins’ season ended, Rutherford said he would talk to everyone he could within the organization to decide on the best course of action moving forward. All options were on the table. He wouldn’t even rule out trading cornerstone players such as Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang.
Now that the internal audit process has played out, Rutherford no longer sounds like a GM intent on taking a weed wacker to his roster. More like a pair of pruning shears.
“What we talked about is trying to retool, not rebuild,” Rutherford said. “We’ve just come off four years in a row where we had over 100 points, coming off a very disappointing playoff. We’ve gotta be careful with how far we go with a team that’s still pretty talented.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .