Ever since the Penguins were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the New York Islanders, it’s been clear they wouldn’t be returning the same team in October. The past two early playoff exits were simply not acceptable to a franchise that’s in perennial win-now mode, and will be for as long as they have the services of talents like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
GM Jim Rutherford has spent his summer talking about changing the culture of the team, and talking with his counterparts around the league. He’s been so singularly focused on that goal that, when asked what he’d do for an encore after being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame last Tuesday, he quipped, “Probably go back to my office and see if we can change this team like I’ve been trying to do for two months.”
The first change saw defenseman Olli Maatta, a two-time Stanley Cup champion at age 24, shipped to Chicago in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick. Maatta was coming off of a disappointing season where he missed 21 games with a shoulder injury and was a healthy scratch during the playoffs, but had been a top-four blueliner for most of his six seasons with the Penguins.
Saturday, though, brought the seismic move, the one that signaled the end of an era of sorts for the Penguins.
Phil Kessel, whose arrival four years ago helped usher in the exciting brand of speed and skill that brought the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cups, went to Arizona, along with prospect Dane Birks and a 2021 fourth-round draft pick, in exchange for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, a first-rounder in 2017.
With Pittsburgh looking to make significant changes this summer and Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang ranging from untouchable to unlikely to move, Kessel became a focal point from the first moments of the Penguins’ early offseason. When news became public that Rutherford had agreed to a trade with Minnesota that would’ve sent Kessel there in May, along with defenseman Jack Johnson – if Kessel had been willing to waive his 23-team no-movement clause to accept it – his eventual departure started to feel inevitable.
Finally, Rutherford was able to strike a deal with Arizona, Kessel’s preferred destination due to his relationship with head coach Rick Tocchet, former assistant with the Penguins. The GM insisted, though, that Kessel could have returned to Pittsburgh next season without things being awkward, and coexisted with head coach Mike Sullivan, if a trade hadn’t worked out.
“I think it was a little blown out of proportion at times,” Rutherford said. “There were times that they didn’t agree on things, maybe what line he was on and whatnot. That’s not an isolated case; that happens at times throughout our league. That was not the factor of him being moved. I did not see that as a problem of our team not getting to the level of play that we felt we should have, or played longer in the playoffs.”
Rutherford made a point of saying that his goal of changing the culture of the team wasn’t about one player. “I don’t want to point this at Phil,” he said. “He was a terrific player for us and a huge part of winning those two Cups. I can’t say enough good things about him. I like him personally. It was just time to make a change with him.”
The Penguins aren’t likely to get Kessel’s point-per-game production from Galchenyuk, who scored 41 points (19G, 22A) in 72 games last year and 56 (30G, 26A) in his best season four years ago. But they get younger – Kessel is 31, Galchenyuk 25 – and they get a fresh player who, coming from Montreal and Arizona, is excited for the opportunity a team like Pittsburgh represents.
“Changing the mix of our team was important at this point,” Rutherford said. “I talked about our team being content with our success over the last few years; trying to bring new people in that are excited to be here. I talked to Alex in the last 15 minutes. His excitement was coming right through the phone. He’s very excited about coming here. If he plays to the level that he’s capable of, he should be a guy that contributes a lot of goals.”
Joseph is also an exciting prospect for the Penguins, who picked up a couple of them in forwards Samuel Poulin and Nathan Légaré in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. Turning 20 on July 1 and weighing in at just 163 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, Joseph is likely a few years away from making an NHL impact. But he’s a good skater who’s put up good numbers in the QMJHL, and he helps build up a Pittsburgh farm system that’s showing the effects of being in win-now mode for years.
If there was any doubt the relationship between Kessel and the Penguins had probably run its course, conflicting statements about whether Kessel had asked for a trade seemed to point to a breakdown in communication at best, an irreparable divide at worst.
“He asked to be traded a few times over the course of time,” Rutherford said. “Of course, then a little time went by and he wasn’t quite sure if he wanted [to be] traded. There were times when he felt that going somewhere else would be in everybody’s best interest.”
“I’m not sure that’s exactly what happened,” Kessel said. “I think he’s mistaken a little bit there. But I don’t want to get involved in that. I’m not here to tell what really happened and the real truth, but whatever Jim wants to say.”
The deal leaves the Penguins with $5 million in cap space, but closer to $2 million after they sign their restricted free agents. Because Rutherford wants to get involved in discussions with other free agents come Monday, it’s a safe bet he’s still working the phones, looking to free up more.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh fans can circle Dec. 6 on their calendars as the day one of the most popular Penguins in recent years returns to PPG Paints Arena with the Coyotes. The fans’ ovation is likely to bring the house down. And, Sunday, Kessel let them know the feeling was mutual.