Phil Kessel has rejected a trade that would have reportedly sent him from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for a package involving Jason Zucker.
Kessel can only be traded to 8 teams because of his no trade clause, and reportedly only wants to be traded to a contender. That will not be easy to accomplish for the Penguins. Kessel has 3 years remaining on his contract, which has a current AAV of $6.8 million per year. Recall that the Toronto Maple Leafs are paying the remaining $1.2 million.
Kessel, who will be 32 in time for the regular season, is coming off of another successful campaign with the Penguins. During his four seasons in Pittsburgh, Kessel has performed fairly well. He has managed to produce:
2015–16: 26 g, 33 a, 59 p, 54.4% corsi, 100.4 pdo, 7.2 point shares, 10.8 GAR, 2.1 WAR
2016–17: 23 g, 47 a, 70 p, 47.4% corsi, 101.6 pdo, 7.3 point shares, 6.3 GAR, 1.2 WAR
2017–18: 34 g, 58 a, 92 p, 51.6% corsi, 99.1 pdo, 10.1 point shares, 9.6 GAR, 1.7 WAR
2018–19: 27 g, 55 a, 82 p, 47.7% corsi, 99.8 pdo, 7.7 point shares, 2.6 GAR, 0.4 WAR
Even before joining Pittsburgh, Kessel was a strong player, peaking at 9.4 GAR, 1.9 WAR with Toronto is 2011–12. He was also a five-time 30 goal scorer who had reached the 80 point plateau twice before joining the Pens. Currently, Kessel has 823 career points (including 357 goals) in 996 NHL games on 11% shooting.
Meanwhile, the 2018–19 Wild placed dead last in the Central Division, finishing with the 28th lowest goals scored total in the NHL, despite having the 13th best goals against total. On paper, Minnesota should be a contender, boasting three elite defensemen in Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba, a top tier goalie in Devan Dubnyk, and three centers in Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, and Victor Rask. Except, Koivu missed almost have the season due to injury and Rask had an abysmal campaign following his acquisition from the Carolina Hurricanes. He produced 9 points in 49 games. Further, no one on the Wild scored more than 28 goals (Zach Parise) and only three Wild even reached the 20 goal plateau (Parise, Staal, and Zucker). It got so bad that the club’s fourth highest goal scorer by the end of the season, Mikael Granlund, only played in 63 games before being traded at the NHL Trade Deadline.
The Wild enter the offseason with over $21 million in cap space, but they need to re-sign key prospects in Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek, as well as a few depth pieces. In terms of the future, Jordan Greenway and Eriksson Ek showed that they have a way to go before becoming reliable top 9 forwards on a contending team. However, Donato showed a lot of promise after coming over from Boston, producing 16 points in 22 games.
Despite the abundant cap space, Minnesota does not have a lot of time to develop these players. The window is closing as Parise, Staal, Koivu, and Suter are all 34 or older, while Dubynk is 33. Thus, if the Wild are going to take their shot at winning a Stanley Cup, they need to act quickly. This explains why the Wild targeted Kessel to remedy their biggest need.
While the Kessel deal would have presumably brought a top sniper in the NHL to a team that desperately needed goal scoring, the rumored trade was perplexing to say the least. The Penguins were apparently going to move Kessel and Jack Johnson to the Wild for Zucker and Rask.
While Rask was a disaster last year, he is only 26, usually produces between 30–40 points per season, and is under contract for three years at $4 million AAV. Meanwhile, Johnson is 32 with 4 years left on his contract at $3.25 million AAV. He produced 13 points in a full 82 game season, and his last three seasons have shown he is nowhere near the 30–40 point defenseman that he was at his best. Over his last four seasons, he has failed to produce more than 23 points in any one year, and did not exceed 14 points in three of those seasons.
Even if one could argue that Johnson provides more value to the Pens than Rask does or potentially could for the Wild, would he even get playing time? The big contracts that the Wild possess on their backend show they do not need another defenseman. Collectively, their top 5 dmen are signed for over $25 million per season and Spurgeon (who is a UFA after next year) is in line for an even bigger deal.
With Suter taking up over $7.5 million, Dumba $6 million, Spurgeon over $5.1 million, Brodin over $4.1 million, and Pateryn over $2.2 million, does it make sense in any deal at all to bring in an overpaid, declining defensemen just to play bottom pairing or at best, maybe a middle pairing partner?
Moreover, making that deal to bring in Kessel would also ship away 27 year old Jason Zucker (who strangely was supposed to be traded twice now in 2019). That doesn’t really make sense. Zucker is a five-time 20 goal scorer, who peaked at 33 goals in 2017–18. He has averaged a 50.4% corsi over the course of his career, as well as a 100.2 PDO. When you look at his GAR and WAR, he has outproduced Kessel in each of the last three years (7.3 GAR and 1.3 WAR in 2018–19, 17.2 GAR and 3.1 WAR in 2017–18, and 22.5 GAR and 4.3 WAR in 2016–17). Zucker is also signed for four more years at $5.5 AAV.
Essentially the trade, as reported, would have moved an incredibly valuable player for a slightly less valuable player who scores more goals. And in exchange, it would have moved a 26-year-old center who had an incredibly down year for an overpaid, declining defenseman to a team with significant cap commitments in four, arguably five defensemen already. I completely understand why the Penguins would accept that trade. But, I’m not so sure why Minnesota would.
Zucker is the type of player the Wild should be building around if they seek to contend. He is still young, signed to a reasonable contract, produces well, and brings a lot of value to his team. The best way for a team like the Wild to remedy a lack of scoring is to add more talented goal scorers, not swap valuable players for them. I’m all for the Wild trying to acquire a Kessel type of player, but this is not the right way to do it, especially since the Wild already hold the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft and developing that player would not align with the current age of their core. This is even more true when the Wild have already moved a younger point producing forward in Mikael Granlund for Kevin Fiala, which further depleted their top end scoring.
In short, Kessel nixed a deal that could have set the Wild back even further. Vetoing that trade might be the best thing to happen to Minnesota all off-season.