When Jim Rutherford swung a deal to bring Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, the critics were out in full force.
“You can’t win with this guy.”
“Phil Kessel traded for next to nothing and it’s a good deal for the Leafs. Really he had to go.”
“They weren’t a Kessel away from a Cup, that trade gutted their system and sealed their fate.”
Thousands of comments like this along with hundreds of unoriginal and not-even-the-slightest-bit-funny hot dog jokes flooded the internet. While most were focused on the ridiculous rumors of Kessel’s lack of work ethic and physicality, they were forgetting just one thing. The Penguins not only just acquired one of the very best right wings in all of hockey, but a proven playoff performer to complement Crosby and Malkin.
Let’s break down the trade to see just how well both sides made out:
The Penguins sent Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, a 1st round pick, and a third round pick to Toronto.
The jury is still out on Kasperi Kapanen, who seems to be a decent prospect who could thrive among all of the Leafs young talent. He scored the gold medal winning goal for Finland at last year’s World Junior Classic and currently has 14 G 12 A 26 PTS in 26 GP for the Leaf’s AHL team, the Toronto Marlies.
Nick Spaling was traded to San Jose along with Roman Polak for two-second round picks.
Scott Harrington was traded to Columbus for forward Kerby Rychel who has 6 G 11 A and 17 PTS in 27 GP in the AHL.
Toronto used the first round pick they acquired (30th overall) in a trade with Anaheim to acquire goaltender Frederik Andersen.
All in all, this trade worked out pretty well for Toronto. They got a solid prospect in Kapanen and a piece to acquire their franchise goaltender. But most importantly, with Kessel, they probably finish with a much better record and never get the chance to draft a generational talent like Auston Matthews with the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. This is one of those incredibly rare trades that works out exceptionally well for both teams. One team getting a key piece to their rebuild, while the other gets a key piece to a Stanley Cup.
The Penguins received Phil Kessel with 1.25M salary retained, Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon, and a 2nd round pick. Biggs and Erixon were largely throw-ins that will never see NHL action.
Kessel, however, has arguably been a top 5 player in the league since the Penguins acquired him. His stats would be even more impressive, but the entire Penguins offensive output was muffled during the first half of the 2015-16 campaign under head coach Mike Johnston.
Last season, Kessel played in all 82 regular season games, in which he tallied 26 goals, 33 assists, good for 59 points. It took Phil a while to find his groove in a Penguins uniform, but once new head coach Mike Sullivan arrived, Kessel transformed himself into one of the most dangerous dual-threats in the entire league. Penguins fans everywhere began to see not only his signature wrist shot, but his remarkable ability to make world-class passes to his teammates in all situations.
As the playoffs approached, Evgeni Malkin went down with an injury that led to the birth of the HBK line. The Penguins signature line for their Stanley Cup playoff run consisted of three first-year Penguins all acquired by GM Jim Rutherford in one of the greatest series of moves by a general manager in NHL history. The speed of Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel on the wings, combined with the playmaking vision of Nick Bonino in the center spearheaded the Penguins Cup run. This incredibly dynamic “third” line created matchup problems for every team the Penguins played. The line combined for an incredible 56 points throughout the playoffs and 11 points in just the Stanley Cup Final alone. That line’s most important player? Kessel, who tallied 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points in 24 playoff games, which was good for first on the team. Kessel probably deserved the Conn Smythe for his efforts, but we’re not going to complain with Sidney Crosby adding another important piece of hardware to his collection. To summarize, the Penguins probably never get close to winning the Stanley Cup if Jim Rutherford doesn’t take a chance on Kessel, who not one other GM in the NHL wanted that offseason.
Kessel wasn’t interested in banking on being a guy who just turns it on in the playoffs though. Since winning the Stanley Cup, Phil has had a new confidence about him, and he’s been playing the best hockey of his career. In 38 games this season, the Stanley Cup champion has 12 goals, 26 assists, and 38 points. Kessel is scoring at a point-per-game pace and currently sits fifth in the NHL in points and third in the Metropolitan division in All-Star voting. It should also be noted that Phil Kessel is one of the NHL’s iron men. He has not missed a game since coming to Pittsburgh, playing in all 120 regular season games and 24 playoff games. His durability has been invaluable to an often injury-riddled Penguins team.
Kessel’s value goes far beyond the numbers though. In a little over a year, he has become a Pittsburgh icon. In a town filled with sports stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Andrew McCutchen, Phil Kessel is right up there with them in popularity. The streets outside of PPG Paints Arena are always littered with Kessel jerseys before puck drop. It’s impossible to go on social media during a Penguins game without seeing the phrase, “Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion.” I had the idea to create the now viral “Phil for President” t-shirts that quickly blew up thanks to Tom Sestito buying them for the team. Kessel and Letang both posted pictures on Instagram and Twitter featuring the shirt and it was instantly a sensation across the hockey community. If any other player takes these shirts in stride, it might be a big deal among that team’s fans, but with Kessel it’s different. He was often (and wrongfully) referred to as a locker room problem with the Leafs by the Toronto media, now Kessel has the entire NHL community rooting for him. Seeing him happy and going along with fun stuff like this, is something fans of all teams can come together and celebrate. This is just one example of what makes Phil Kessel such a likable guy. Shy, misunderstood, and often vilified in Toronto, Phil’s character has shined in a working class city like Pittsburgh. Kessel is an everyman. He looks just like you and I, except he’s an Olympic athlete and Stanley Cup champion. He quietly goes about his business at an elite level all while being one of the favorite guys in the locker room. It is every Pittsburgher’s dream to have a beer with Phil Kessel.
In conclusion, the Phil Kessel deal was a terrific hockey deal for both sides, but particularly the Penguins. Jim Rutherford acquired one of the best players in hockey at a discounted price AND he got the Leafs to retain salary. Kessel was a part of a historic line, led the team in playoff scoring, and brought the Penguins their fourth Stanley Cup. This trade was more than just a hockey deal though, it started an absolute revolution among hockey fans. What ensued after the trade on July 1, 2015 was nothing short of a Hollywood script. Phil Kessel, wronged and run out of town in Toronto was traded to a star-studded Penguins team who continually struggled in the playoffs, despite their star power. After a rough start, head coach Mike Sullivan took over the team, which was quickly without Evgeni Malkin. The injury to Malkin led to the birth of the incredible HBK line. With Hagelin and Bonino alongside him, Phil Kessel rose to the top of the hockey world. Through big goals and hilarious interviews, he won over the hearts of fans everywhere while doing it. He finished as the leading playoff scorer and fans everywhere rejoiced when Phil yelled as he lifted the Cup above his head. Finally, he used his day with the Stanley Cup to take it back to the Toronto Sick Kid’s hospital, where he solidified his legendary status. 2016 was the year of Phil Kessel, Stanley Cup champion.