Well, here we are. The Penguins will not be lifting Lord Stanley’s chalice this year and now they’re out of the playoffs the earliest they’ve been since 2015. The team feels stale. The prime skater cogs on this team (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang) all have ages that start with a ‘3’ instead of a ‘2’. Jim Rutherford has been making a conscious effort to bring in some younger bodies in trades (age-26 Nick Bjugstad, age-22 Jared McCann, age-22 Marcus Pettersson, age-27 Erik Gudbranson), but this team will go as far as the core of this team will take them.
Jim Rutherford has also cap-locked this team for the 2019-20 season, as we wrote about back in February. As of this writing, the 2019-20 roster has $79.1M of cap hit commitments. All accounts say the cap will be at or around $83M next season, so let’s just say the Penguins have $4M of cap room.
The Penguins have 17 players under contract next year, so they’ll need 6 more signings. That’s not a lot of room. Here’s the list of unrestricted free agents for the Penguins:
- Matt Cullen
- Garrett Wilson
- Chad Ruhwedel
- Zach Trotman
Matt Cullen is just a few months younger than me, so he will probably retire. Garrett Wilson is completely fungible. The Pens have six defensemen already under contract (thanks Rutherford, sort of), and two restricted free agents (we’ll get to them next), so the Pens don’t really need to sign either Ruhwedel or Trotman.
The Penguins have some restricted free agents, though, that are going to eat into that $4M a little bit:
- Jusso Riikola
- Marcus Pettersson
- Zach Aston-Reese
- Teddy Blueger
These guys all range in age from 22 (Pettersson) to 25 (Riikola), so keeping some younger guys, albeit bottom-6/3rd-pair types, is important. I’d like to think that Riikola could be signed for around $800K, Pettersson around $1M, Aston-Reese for $1.25M, and Blueger for $750K. That would be $3.8M for these four guys, which is great but it leaves no room for two other forwards that are needed.
So the Penguins need to create some cap space wiggle room for themselves. I know people think that the contracts of Jack Johnson ($3.25M for the next four seasons) and/or Erik Gudbranson ($4M for the next two seasons) can magically be dumped, but it is highly unlikely without the Penguins appending some type of high draft pick as an incentive. When you start to look at players that have cap hits significant enough to help and bring something worthwhile back in return to help reload on the fly, it really comes down to Phil Kessel and his $6.8M cap hit.
I know that for some in the fanbase this is heresy. But Kessel did not have a great season at all this year. Beyond the surface stats of Kessel ‘only’ having 82 points is the fact that his play looked indifferent for vast stretches of the season this year and he brings nothing to the table defensively. Of his 27 goals, 12 were on the power play, tying his career-high for PP goals. At times, he basically was a power play specialist this past season.
Kessel has a limited no-trade deal in which he submits a list of 8 teams he’d be willing to accept a trade to. Naturally, we don’t know those teams. He could also potentially waive his no-trade for a team not on his list if the destination appeals to him.
Kessel still has three years at $6.8M/year left on his deal and he will be entering his age-32 season, but there are plenty of teams that probably believe that when he’s motivated he can be a goal-scoring asset for their team. I believe a return for Kessel should be a 1st round pick in the 2019 draft and a 3rd or 4th round pick, either in 2019 or 2020. But who are some realistic teams for his services ? Not every team can absorb that cap hit with ease, so I’ve ranked my seven potential destinations in descending order. I’m presuming the $83M cap figure when I discuss cap space.
7. New York Islanders
Why it could happen: The Islanders have loads of cap space for next year — $34.5M and just six players needed. RW Jordan Eberle is probably going to depart in free agency and that leaves a hole on one of the Islanders’ top two lines at that spot. In general, the Islanders could use some more goals, as only three players scored 20 or more this year and none more than 28. Kessel would be a boost for their moribund 29th ranked power play (14.5%).
Why it probably won’t happen: It’s hard to envision Rutherford trading Kessel to a direct divisional rival that is on an upward swing. Additionally, the Islanders don’t have a 3rd or 4th round pick in 2019’s draft, so that would ensure the Penguins having to move the second pick into 2020, which isn’t preferred.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
Why it could happen: The Hurricanes also have a raft of cap space ($29.8M) and they need to add 10 players. Not only do the Hurricanes have all their own picks, but they also have an extra 2nd round pick in 2019 and an extra 3rd round pick in 2020. Getting a mid-range 1st round pick this year would be a nice bonus.
Why it probably won’t happen: As with the Islanders, it’s difficult to see the Penguins aiding a division rival on the cusp of becoming good. The Hurricanes typically hover around the bottom tier of salary cap, so that $29.8M isn’t all in play. With Sebastian Aho probably occupying $7M+ on his upcoming deal and the Hurricanes needing to find one, maybe two, goalies, their internal salary cap is already getting tight.
5. Minnesota Wild
Why it could happen: The Wild are like the Penguins, but without the recent Stanley Cup success, in that they are also getting stale and in need of a shakeup. They have $19.6M of cap space and need to sign 6 players in some form or fashion. Kessel hails from Wisconsin and went to college at the University of Minnesota, so this could be a nice homecoming for the end of his career.
Why it probably won’t happen: Their core is even older than the Penguins (Parise, Suter, Koivu, Stahl, Dubynk will all be between 33 and 36 next year), so adding a 32 year old Kessel may not be in the best interest. There’s also not an opening for him at RW at present.
4. Vegas Golden Knights
Why it could happen: Not to put too fine a point on this, but Phil likes casinos. Every city either has one or is close to one at this point, but…c’mon…it’s Vegas. It would be great to see Kessel reunited with Ryan Reaves, in hopes of replicating this. They still have soooo many draft picks, including two additional picks in the 3rd round of the 2019 draft. It would also be humorous if the Pens got their own 2nd round pick in 2020 back that they gave up to ensure the Golden Knights would take Fleury in the expansion draft.
Why it probably won’t happen: The Golden Knights only have $10.1M and need to sign 6 players, so allocating $6.8M to Kessel seems like it would put them in dire straights. Would they consider trading Reilly Smith ($5M next three years) back ? That’s counter to the premise of this article, which is finding cap space and not players. The Golden Knights have their own restricted free agent in William Karlsson that will probably command quite a bit of money, too.
3. Arizona Coyotes
Why it could happen: Kessel could be left alone in the desert, figuratively and literally, and be out of the spotlight. He would be an instant upgrade offensively to a team whose leading scorer had 19 goals. Kessel would be a boon to the Coyotes’ 26th ranked power play (16.3%). They have $14.4M of cap space and just four players needed. They have all their own picks, plus an extra 3rd rounder in the 2019 draft.
Why it probably won’t happen: Kessel probably loves to be alone, but he probably also wants to be on a semi-relevant team. The Coyotes need a real talent infusion beyond Kessel to be considered even a sure thing to make the playoffs next year, let alone be any type of threat. The Coyotes are a franchise in constant off-ice turmoil with a lack of a real owner that is willing to spend.
2. Vancouver Canucks
Why it could happen: The Canucks are young, on the upswing, and have oceans of cap space ($32.4M) and not a lot of holes (5 players needed). Kessel would be a massive upgrade at RW on Bo Horvat’s line and give them two legit scoring lines. He would also assist their sub-par power play (22nd ranked, 17.1%).
Why it probably won’t happen: We’re at the portion of the article where it won’t happen only because Kessel simply doesn’t want to go to said destination.
1. Colorado Avalanche
Why it could happen: The Avalanche pretty much check all the boxes: Need to create a second scoring line behind a phenomenal 1st line ? Check. Mountains of cap space in the form of $36.9M ? Check. An abundance of extra picks ? Check. The Avalanche have two 1st round picks in 2019. Now they sure as heck won’t give up the 4th overall pick via Ottawa, but could part with the other for Kessel. If at 4th overall the Avalanche can pick up a C like Dylan Cozens, then he and Kessel instantly create a great 2nd line. They also have an additional 3rd round pick in 2019, so the package writes itself.
Why it probably won’t happen: I got nothing. Just make the call, Jim.