After years of searching for a goal scoring winger for Sidney Crosby, the Penguins may have found their man.
The Pens sent Kaperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, and the Penguins 2016 first and third-round picks to the Leafs for right-winger Phil Kessel, defensemen Tim Erixon, forward Tyler Biggs and the a 2016 second-round selection. Additionally, Toronto retained 15 percent of Kessel’s remaining salary. In other words, the Penguins acquired one of the better goal scorers in the NHL for $6.8 million per season.
“The Penguins need to go out and get Sidney Crosby a sniper.” It’s a theme that has been parroted by Penguins fans for years now. This isn’t the first time the Penguins have tried to find a perfect match for Crosby, and this deal has the feel of some made by former GM Ray Shero.
The most glaring example of Shero’s trades was the deal that brought Jerome Iginla to the Penguins in 2013 for a first-round pick and two prospects, which ended up failing miserably. In fact, many point to this deal as the turning point for Shero and ultimately went a long way towards him being fired a year later.
Will Kessel be Rutheford’s Iginla? Or could this deal help the Penguins win a Stanley Cup and with it, silence Rutherford’s often vocal critics?
Many hockey experts are commending Rutherford for consummating the deal, noting that the Penguins acquired a player in Kessel that’s capable scoring 40 or 50 goals and could the Pens win the Stanley Cup that has eluded them since 2009.
If it were only that easy.
On the surface, the Kessel acquisition looks good. Kapanen has a chance to be a solid NHL player, but shows few signs of being a top-six forward anytime soon. He’s certainly a far cry from Kessel, whose dynamic skating ability and canon of a shot have helped him score 247 NHL goals.
Harrington has the look of a bottom pair defenseman. He’s limited and was looking at an uphill climb to be a regular with so many other talented blueliners in the Pens’ system.
As for Spaling, let’s just say his $2.2 million cap hit won’t be missed.
It’s understandable to argue that finding talent via the NHL draft is a high risk, low reward endeavor. The league is littered with first-round busts. It’s not a stretch to believe Kapanen could end up being another Angelo Esposito, Konstantin Koltsov or Robert Dome.
In fact, hidden in the Kessel deal, the Penguins acquired two more of those first-round misadventures in Erixon and Biggs. Those two players, who have never fulfilled their first-round promise, are perfect examples of how difficult it is to draft top-end NHL talent.
So, when Rutherford traded away the rights to the Penguins 2016 first-round pick, it’s easy to say it’s worth the risk to get Crosby his sniper. In doing that, though, he Pens have now gone three years without having a first-round pick to augment their largely depleted minor league system.
That’s not a big deal today, but it puts the future in serious doubt. Rutherford has gone all in with this deal, and in the process, has made it clear that the Penguins need to win a Stanley Cup now.
That’s because big issues lie in the wake of this trade. First of all, the team has undeniably mortgaged of the future in favor of the present. That attitude was the one that got Shero ran out town, and it has never been the path to the long-term success of the franchise.
Beyond Oscar Sundqvist and just-drafted Daniel Sprong, the Penguins do not have a forward in their system that is projected today as NHL caliber. If the Pens come up short in the next couple of years, with so much money tied up in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Kessel, how long until the “somethings got to give” narrative begins?
Are the Pens prepared to lose Malkin, who some would argue is the team’s best player?
Financial issues and tough decisions could lie ahead with the Penguins’ top-heavy salary and the ownership group looking to sell. This might mean seriously considering trading a player such as Malkin in the not so distant future.
If you don’t think that’s a realistic outcome, remember that Jaromir Jagr was shipped out of Pittsburgh at the peak of his career for similar reasons. I doubt people thought in 1995 that was a reasonable outcome, either.
The second issue is that despite adding a dynamic goal scorer in Kessel, are we certain that he is going to the difference maker? Kessel was dealt by the Boston Bruins in 2009 despite coming off a 36-goal season at age 21. Talk about a red flag.
He also was brought in by the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the team a winner, and in six seasons, the Leafs made the playoffs just once.
Considering Kessel is signed through 2022 and the Pens will pay him nearly $50 million, is the risk worth it? If the Penguins win the Cup, of course the deal makes sense. Rutherford will look like a genius. Otherwise, he may end up being judged as Shero was when similar deals not only didn’t bring the Penguins a cup, but sacrificed the future as well.
Pens fans should rejoice the trade and enjoy Kessel. However, anything short a Stanley Cup, and this deal could quickly lose its luster.
Photo credit: Pittsburgh Penguins