Well, we all know it’s coming. We all know Phil Kessel is getting traded this summer. There’s more than enough smoke out there to admit there’s a fire.
What we don’t know yet is whether or not that GMJR will own his mistake and move on from Jack Johnson just one year removed from signing him to an albatross of a contract.
We know the story with Phil, too. He’s a bad boy that’s “hard to coach,” but has scored 303 points across 328 games in a Penguins uniform and captured 2 Stanley Cups in the process.
In return, the Penguins may be getting two players in center Victor Rask and winger Jason Zucker.
Let’s pause for a second and put 2 and 2 together here.
On Tuesday, Michael Russo, the Wild beat reporter for The Athletic, put together an interesting piece about Minnesota being a potential destination for Phil with the Wild actively shopping Zucker. In it, he also mentions this little tidbit (emphasis my own):
Now, any Kessel talk may seem contrary to Fenton’s whole “get younger/faster” objective, but there are a couple reasons why this could still make sense.
1) Kunin is the Wild’s only top-9 right-shot forward. 2) Owner Craig Leipold told The Athletic earlier this month that he expects a playoff team next season, so Fenton is under pressure to right the Wild’s ship. 3) Kessel, a former Gopher and Wisconsin native, is a childhood friend of Ryan Suter’s, so there’s a chance the Wild are listed on Kessel’s eight-team trade list or he’d be willing to waive his modified no-trade clause if it’s not. 4) There may be a way for Fenton to rid himself of Rask’s contract if he’s willing to take one of Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s problem contracts like defenseman Jack Johnson.
Rask, drafted by Rutherford when he managed the Carolina Hurricanes, has three years left on a contract at $4 million annually. Right now, he’s penciled in on the Wild’s fourth line next season at center or wing. Johnson has four years left on a contract that pays him $3.25 million annually.
Johnson, 32, a left-shot defenseman who played hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, had a tough start to last season, was much better in February and March playing alongside Justin Schultz but then struggled again down the stretch. He was a healthy scratch the first time all season in Game 1 of the playoffs, then was reinserted into the lineup and didn’t play well.
Meanwhile, Josh Yohe of The Athletic Pittsburgh echoed something similar today, reporting that the Penguins and Wild are in talks with an offer on the table surrounding Kessel and Zucker (with Rask and Johnson having also been mentioned), with the lone hold up being Kessel and his modified NTC:
However, numerous sources confirmed that Kessel is unsure if he wants to play in Minnesota. He did research on Minnesota and the Wild during the past week, the sources said. Kessel is very close friends with Ryan Suter. Both are natives of Madison, Wisconsin, and played internationally together for Team USA.
The deal has been on the table for days. It is believed the only holdup at this time is Kessel, who has the right to veto the trade.
Still, smoke. Still, fire.
So let’s operate under the assumption that it’s a 2-for-2 offer with no money being retained.
The 26 year old Rask is a curious case. He started in Carolina as a top 2 center and in his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, notched 48 (26 at 5v5) and 45 points (30 at 5v5) across 162 games, before an injury-riddled 2017-18 netted him just 31 in 71. Last season, though, was junk.
Before getting shipped off to Minnesota for Nino Niederreiter, he posted just 6 points in 26 games following a relegation to the 4th line before seeing his role limited in Minny, netting just 2 goals and 1 assist in 23 game with the Wild. His possession-based metrics are somewhat underwhelming, both per 60 minutes of play as well as relative to his teammates, but perhaps eating minutes behind the likes of Crosby and Malkin might do him some good. At an AAV of $4M over the next 3 seasons, one can only hope that would be the case.
In Zucker, though, the Penguins would get a really solid player. The 27 year old, whose AAV over the next 4 seasons checks in at $5.5M, hasn’t posted fewer than 42 points in any of the last 3 seasons. In 2017-18, he notched 33 goals and 31 assists (both career highs), but had a bit of a down year last year, going just 21-21-42 across 81 games while being the victim of some poor shooting luck.
At 5v5, though, he’s a possession demon.
In each of the last 5 seasons, he’s never seen a sub-50% share of scoring chances or high danger scoring chances and owns a 50%+ share of unblocked shot attempts, shots on goal, and goals scored in each of his last 3 seasons. He’s also a flexible player that can play on either wing and had an on-ice expected goals share of 55.92% last season (14.91 individually at 5v5, scoring 12 goals).
He gets a lot of looks from in close, too.
With that potential straight swap, the Penguins would shift out $6.8M over the next three years (Kessel) and $3.25M over the next 4 (Johnson), a total of $10.05M while bringing in $9.5M in Rask and Zucker, a savings of just over a half a million per season.
For a team up against the cap, that makes a ton of sense.
Couple that with the Penguins having re-signed Chad Ruhwedel and still have Marcus Pettersson as a pending RFA, that’d give them 7 D moving forward without having to add another in Johnson’s potential departure.
Taking a stab at what the lines probably look like after this potential deal, one might imagine something like this, understanding that any of Simon, Hornqvist, Rust, and McCann are interchangeable here as guys that can play on any line on either wing (aside from Hornqvist, who’s landlocked on the RW):
It also changes the look of the top powerplay unit, but that may be interesting. You could potentially see Guentzel and Hornqvist work the front of the net/down low and one of Malkin/Crosby take over Kessel’s role on the left half wall.
Alternatively, and probably more likely, the Penguins move to rolling out 2 D on the PP with Schultz running the show from the center point, one of Hornqvist/Guentzel doing the dirty work in front with Crosby and Malkin doing their thing on the right side of the ice and Letang’s right hand shot replacing Kessel in the straight swap on that half wall. Going 2 D would also be a potential answer to the question of “how the hell do we stop these shorthanded goals?”
Time will tell how this would work out for the Penguins should it come to fruition.
Time will also heal all wounds of Phil Kessel’s departure.
They would be giving up a point per game guy in Phil Kessel, a guy that arguably should’ve won the Conn Smythe in the 2016 run, but get a guy back in Zucker that can probably replicate or, at a minimum, come close to replicating Kessel’s 5v5 production.
That’s key here.
Excluding this season, where Zucker shot at just 6.82% at 5v5 and notched just 26 5v5 points (20 fewer than Kessel), Zucker registered 39 5v5 points in 2017-18 vs. Kessel’s 50 and registered 44 in 2016-17 compared to that of the 40 Phil registered. Kessel’s impact on the powerplay tips this in the favor of the Wild, but Zucker being 4 years younger helps the Penguins potentially more long term while also not losing (and potentially gaining) speed on the wing.
We would obviously hate to see Phil go, but Zucker is a bona fide top 6 forward too, the 27th ranked left wing via Corsica (vs. the 17th ranked RW in Kessel), that will make the Penguins much better at 5v5.
Rask, on the other hand, is the wild card here. He can play on the wing in a pinch, has shown signs of being serviceable in the past, and is still only 26. Via Corsica, he was the 112th ranked center last season, putting him on the low end of the third line center world. He’s got that history with GMJR, too.
He’s also got more upside than Jack Johnson and, worst case scenario, is easier to hide on a team that has Crosby, Malkin, and Bjugstad down the middle the next two seasons. And, given what Bjugstad did with the Penguins in a 3rd line center role, it’s had to justify moving him out of that spot in favor of Rask. Compare that to top 4 D pairing Jack Johnson, who can only be hidden in the pressbox, and the scales tip in the Penguins favor.
At the end of the day, the Penguins likely win any trade that sees Jack Johnson shipped out of town, even if it means ripping our hearts out and running it over with a Mack truck over the loss of Phil.
But hey, at least the Penguins would be able to get the puck out of their own end of the ice.