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Why trading Phil Kessel makes good sense for the Penguins

Phil Kessel will be a bust with the Penguins this season, so as NHL teams need scoring Pittsburgh could be wise to trade him.

It takes a big man to ’fess up to a mistake, so props to Jim Rutherford. The Penguins GM admitted to one during the weekend with the deal that sent David Perron off to Anaheim for Carl Hagelin.

Perron, acquired just last January from the Oilers, was supposed to be the big winger who would go to the greasy areas and bring some diversity to Pittsburgh’s attack. He didn’t work out, much the same way the smaller, speedier Hagelin never quite fit in with the Ducks after coming over from the Rangers. So this was an exchange of one underachieving top-nine winger for another, a reasonable move in hockey terms.

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But in dealing with one problem, Rutherford created another. The Pens are now on the hook for Hagelin’s contract, which runs through 2018-19 at a hit of $4 million. That’s a curious commitment for a cap-strapped team that desperately needed to wipe Perron’s expiring $3.8 million hit off the books this summer. It leaves Pittsburgh with nearly $60 million committed next season to 14 players (plus salary retention on previous deals), with RFAOlli Maatta due for a significant raise and six other roster spots to fill.

It’s a tough spot, one that has hamstrung this team for years. And it’s one that might convince Rutherford to admit that he might have goofed up on another deal as well.

Phil Kessel hasn’t exactly been a disaster for the Pens, but the team’s key off-season acquisition hasn’t come close to meeting expectations either. After scoring 30-or-more goals in four of his five full seasons in Toronto, the 27-year-old sniper was a supposed to flourish alongside either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Gifted with their sweet saucer passes, 40 goals was a given. How about 50? Not out of the question.

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It’s not going to happen. Not this season, anyway. The chemistry hasn’t been there with either center, and while Kessel has had his moments, he’s been been largely ineffective as a Penguin. The numbers don’t lie: No goals in his past seven games. One in his past 12. Three in his past 21. Goalless in 26 of his past 30. He’s scoring only .27 goals per game, down from his .44 rate wity Toronto, leaving him on pace for just 22, his fewest in a full season since 2007-08. He’s also scoring .75 goals per 60 minutes at evens. That ranks 92nd in the league, tied with Joonas Donskoi, Alexander Wennberg, J.T. Miller and the guy who replaced him in Toronto at 20 cents on the dollar, P-A Parenteau.

Kessel’s points production is down as well: .6 per game compared to .88 with the Maple Leafs. And while the eye test suggests he’s been a fairly effective playmaker, he has just 15 assists on the season. Of those, nine were primary, but only four of them occurred in five-on-five situations ... which means he’s setting up a goal about once every 11 games. 

Maybe more revealing? He’s on track to land just 247 shots on net. That’s about three per game, down from the 3.74 he averaged during his years with the Maple Leafs. That’s not for a lack of having the puck on his stick. That’s a result of poor decision making, of deferring when he should be pulling the trigger.

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Maybe Kessel is not cut out to be a support player after all. Or maybe it’s a confidence issue that new coach Mike Sullivan can work on. That’s something that can ebb and flow with a shooter, and a fresh voice might yet get Kessel back on track. And you’d hate to give up too quickly on a player with his pedigree.

But at the same time, Rutherford isn’t operating in a vacuum. There’s a growing desperation for scoring around the league. Montreal, Minnesota, Anaheim ... the list of potential buyers goes on. And if their desperation enables him to get greater value than what Kessel is providing, he has to consider the option.

The Pens, of course, are in win-now mode, so picks and prospects, no matter how promising, don’t make a lot of sense. But if one of those teams has something that can help Pittsburgh this year—a heavy winger with some touch, a reliable top-four defender—and help Rutherford clear out some space under the cap for down the road, he has to keep an open mind.

No question about it: Moving Kessel less than a year after acquiring him would shine an unflattering light on Rutherford’s stewardship of the Penguins. But better to admit a mistake early and try to fix it than to let it linger. Especially in a seller’s market.

The numbers game

• The Blackhawks’ franchise record 12-game win streak has lifted them from 13 points off the Western Conference lead to first place. Meanwhile sniper Patrick Kane is the first Hawk since Bobby Hull in 1968-69 to be the first NHL player to reach the 30-goal mark during a given season.

• Braden Holtby of the Capitals is the first netminder since Chris Osgood for the Red Wings in 1995-96 to win 30 of his first 38 games in a season.

• Matt Hunwick’s game-winner for Toronto with 7.5 seconds left in regulation against the Flyers on Tuesday night was the latest such goal this season (there have been eight in the final minute), and the latest by a Maple Leaf since Brian Bradley potted one at 19:58 vs. Detroit way back on Feb. 1, 1992.

• How did the NHL do in picking these country acts to perform during All-Star Weekend in Nashville?

• The NHL’s next generation of elite goalies is made in America.

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• Advanced stats reveal the best line of 2015-16 and somehow it doesn’t include Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin.

• Joe Thornton, Owen Nolan and Arturs Irbe are the standouts on San Jose’s 25th anniversary team.

• Speaking of the Sharks, they’ve noticed the dwindling attendance at SAP Center and they have some ideas on how to remedy that. Not sure that bringing back the organist will put butts in seats, though.

• Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly looks back at his time in Denver as he prepares to face the Avalanche for the first time on Wednesday night.

• Take a look at what NHL team payrolls reveal about several top Stanley Cup contenders. WARNING: chart and graph intensive.