Last Friday, the Penguins made a scene when they stayed at their draft table long after the show ended, but they made an even bigger scene on Wednesday when they flipped the NHL trade market on its nose. Though they didn’t immediately sign any large free agents this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins still are undoubtedly winners following Day 1 of the NHL’s Free Agency period. And that’s because of the patience of Jim Rutherford. Rutherford has been around the NHL for a long time and has learned a thing or two about working to get a deal done. For the last month, he has been working with the Toronto Maple Leafs to bring Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Wednesday the deal was done.
Let’s break down all the pieces the Penguins gave up and got in return and look at just how much of a win this deal was. Of course, with Kessel’s no-trade clause it made moving him difficult for the Leafs and gave Rutherford more control over the deal. So without further ado, let’s get to what the Penguins gave up for Phil Kessel.
Kasperi Kapanen became the Leafs’ biggest acquisition in this deal when Rutherford flat out refused to offer them Derrick Pouliot. Kapanen, an 18 year-old who nearly made the Penguins roster out of camp last year, had a down year. While he had just 21 points in 41 games for KalPa of the Finnish League he did bring offense when he joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins later. He notched 5 points in 7 AHL playoff contests and showed flashes of brilliance. The Penguins a few weeks ago would not have been willing to part with such a player. Kapanen was a player I felt the Penguins were comfortable slotting in this upcoming season. However, at the draft this past weekend they beefed up their forward corps with the addition of Daniel Sprong. Sprong, who should have gone in the first round fell into the Penguins lap, much like Kapanen last season.
Nick Spaling was added to this move as a salary dump. The Penguins needed more cap space and the Leafs took on Spaling’s $2.2 million cap hit. The middle-six player was a great utility man for the Penguins, but as a Toronto native gets to go home in this deal. It’s a great feel-good move and keeps the Leafs from needing to find another roster-ready player on the free agent market.
The Leafs may not have gotten the Penguins top two defensive prospects, but they did get a defensive prospect. Scott Harrington was beloved by the old regime in Pittsburgh but fell out of favor with Mike Johnston as Brian Dumoulin’s stock rose late last spring. The Penguins knew they would have to part with one of their blueline prospects and Harrington was the most palatable.
Conditional Draft Picks
This is honestly the best part of this deal. It shows Rutherford learned from past mistakes. In the deal for David Perron, Rutherford sent the Oilers the Penguins first-rounder this year and when they nearly missed the playoffs this was looking catastrophic. This time, Rutherford protected the pick so that if it’s in the position to be part of the draft lottery the Penguins can push the pick back to the 2017 draft.
Guaranteed Draft Pick
No matter what, the Leafs are guaranteed a third-round selection from this trade in the 2016 draft. For the Penguins this was hardly an inconvenience as they had three in the third round.
Conditional Draft Pick
The Penguins, should they make the playoffs in 2016, will not have a first rounder but will have their own second rounder returned to them. The Leafs acquired this pick in the deal that brought Daniel Winnik to the Penguins while sending Zach Sill to the Leafs. The Penguins expressed their interest in getting the pick back. The Leafs agreed, on conditions. So if the Penguins make the playoffs next season, they get their second rounder back and send their first to Toronto. If they don’t in 2016 but do in 2017, the same arrangement is upheld. If they don’t make the playoffs in 2016 or 2017 the Leafs get the Penguins first rounder and the Penguins get no second rounder.
The Penguins sent the Leafs two prospects but also got two back in the deal and while Harrington and Kapanen were a second and first round selection, respectively, both of the Penguins’ new players were chosen in the first round. First is defenseman Tim Erixon. Erixon was selected 23rd overall in the first round of the 2009 entry draft by the Calgary Flames. The Swede, who was born in New York when his father played in the NHL for the Rangers, did not sign with the Flames and played for the Rangers before being a piece in another multi-player deal, the one that sent Rick Nash to the New York Rangers. He’s bounced around a bit and was picked up off of waivers by the Leafs this winter. He may not project to be a top-4 defenseman, but he is a great depth player who can make call-up stints regularly.
The second prospect the Penguins received is Tyler Biggs. Biggs was taken 22nd overall by the Maple Leafs in the 2011 entry draft and hasn’t really worked out in Toronto. The big bodied forward spent time in the ECHL last season, but improved towards season’s end. He will most likely start this season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton where new coach Mike Sullivan will work to improve his overall game. He is a bit of a project but on a team needing depth forwards it’s a solid add-on to the deal.
And there it is. Phil Kessel is a Pittsburgh Penguin. It felt like it was coming for a while and then it felt like the Penguins were going to sell the farm for him, but they didn’t. Not only do they get the top American-born scorer since 2009, an Olympic silver medalist, the fourth-best goal scorer since 2010-2011 and someone who has speed on the wing that the team desperately needs – they get it for less than anyone expected. The Maple Leafs did not want to eat any of Kessel’s contract in a deal but eventually Pittsburgh told them they had to and that they would need to take on another contract to make the move possible. The Leafs, who were handcuffed by Kessel’s no trade clause, eventually had to accept that and are paying $1.2M of Kessel’s $8M. So the Penguins get a guy who has regularly scored 30 goals with Tyler Bozak as his center for $6.8 million a season and with the Spaling move added just $4.6M to their cap today. They even got Toronto to pay Kessel’s bonus this season that was due on July 1st.
This is the deal the Penguins wanted to make. They wanted Kessel all along and today was the day to get him. He needed out of Toronto and he needed to go to a place where he can be part of the band, not the leader. Well, Crosby is the leader here and joining Malkin, Letang, Fleury and up and comers like Maatta and Pouliot will definitely take pressure off of him. He will be in a place where he can go to the grocery store and buy lettuce without an audience. While the Pittsburgh media has its issues, it’s definitely no Toronto or Boston microscope.
In the end, you want your team to be better after the first day of free agency than it was before. With this deal, the Penguins are definitely better than they were yesterday.