Following the recent report from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe that Penguins star forward Phil Kessel was upset about his usage in the playoffs and that he and head coach Mike Sullivan were at odds that had led the team to look at moving Kessel, colleague Pierre Lebrun clarified the situation after speaking with Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford. LeBrun reports that Rutherford feels the rumors of dissension in the locker room have been “blown out of proportion”. If this sounds familiar, it is because Rutherford responded to Kessel rumors similarly last summer and, of course, he was not traded. It appears to again be a topic that is inflated by the media more than it is grounded in reality.
Rutherford tells Lebrun that both he and Sullivan understand that it is Kessel’s preference to play with Evgeni Malkin, but defends his coach, saying “there’s times where they play together, when they’re both really going, and there’s times when they don’t… (Sullivan) believes balance throughout the lineup is the best way to win, and we won two Cups that way”. He continues that “for someone to suggest it’s an issue within our team, that can’t be taken care of or resolved, I don’t believe that’s accurate… I don’t feel that we have to trade Phil Kessel.”
If there is no discourse, why would the Penguins trade Kessel? Yes, there are salary cap concerns, but some of those could be eliminated by the estimated significant cap increase, while others could be assisted by shipping out a less-crucial player like Carl Hagelin or Matt Hunwick. After all, Kessel’s 92 points this season did finish tied for seventh in the league in scoring – ahead of Sidney Crosby – and he was among the league’s best in goals, assists, and power play production. At a reduced cap hit courtesy of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Penguins would much rather keep Kessel and his enormous output rather than try to find a fair return for him. If not for the rumored rift between he and Sullivan, there is little reason they would rush to deal him away. It appears that we can close the book on this hypothetical, at least until next off-season.