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Penguins excited to add Kessel's skill on the wing

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford did what he said he would.

Rutherford declared after Pittsburgh was eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games that he would bring in at least one top-six wing. He did just that Wednesday, when the Penguins acquired forward Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I'm very excited about what happened today," Rutherford said. "We've worked on this deal with Toronto for a month, or over a month. It got a little bit of legs on draft day, but it really heated up last night, and we were able to complete the deal today.

"We set out this offseason to bring in more skill on the wing and some more speed. I certainly think we covered that by adding Phil Kessel. We also liked to get some consistency of wingers for [Evgeni Malkin] and [Sidney Crosby]."

Kessel, forward Tyler Biggs and defenseman Tim Erixon were traded to Pittsburgh for forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington, and a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Additional draft picks, which are conditional upon the Penguins qualifying for the playoffs in 2015-16 or 2016-17, were included in the trade.

If Pittsburgh qualifies for the postseason in 2016, the Maple Leafs will get the Penguins' 2016 first-round pick and Pittsburgh will receive Toronto's 2016 second-round pick, which the Maple Leafs obtained when they traded forward Daniel Winnik to the Penguins in February.

Toronto will retain $1.2 million of Kessel's salary per season, making Pittsburgh's salary-cap charge for him $6.8 million. Kessel is signed through 2021-22.

The Penguins struggled offensively late in the regular season before earning a playoff spot on the final day with a 2-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres. Pittsburgh averaged 1.83 goals in regulation in its final 18 games and scored more than one goal once in five games against the New York Rangers in their Eastern Conference First Round series.

Kessel scored 30 or more goals four times in his six seasons with the Maple Leafs and had 20 goals in the shortened 2012-13 season. He could improve the Penguins offense, which relied heavily on one line, led by Crosby and right wing Patric Hornqvist, to produce much of its scoring during the postseason.

Rutherford said coach Mike Johnston will determine where Kessel will play, alongside Crosby or Malkin, based on how he performs in training camp.

Rutherford said he's not worried about how Kessel will mesh with his new teammates, citing the differences between Toronto and Pittsburgh, where he will not be in the spotlight.

"I don't have any concerns," Rutherford said. "Everybody gets a fresh start in a new place. You hear stories about different people in different situations, but I feel very comfortable with getting Phil. I've done a lot of homework on this. I've talked with a lot of people, and I do believe a fresh start, getting out of Toronto, where he went there under the microscope from Day One, he was always the guy.

"He was the guy who was blamed when things weren't going well, and he doesn't have to be the guy here. We have a bunch of them, so I believe he's going to fit in great."

Kessel has not missed a game since 2009-10, his first season with the Maple Leafs, but has been criticized for a lack of conditioning. Rutherford said he is not concerned, citing Kessel's endurance and ability to consistently perform at a high level.

"Maybe we're on to something. We'll just have to see," Rutherford said. "Being around our players, and the type of conditioning and how hard they work, it will rub off on anybody. But I was partly kidding about maybe we're on to something. I do think guys that are in too good of shape are more vulnerable to getting hurt, and this is a guy that plays every game."

Pittsburgh managed to add Kessel without trading young defensemen Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot. Reports indicated either of the two would likely have to be included in a trade for Kessel in order for Toronto to agree to the deal. Rutherford said he was pleased the Penguins could retain the two, especially Pouliot.

"I get asked about them a lot," Rutherford said. "It's hard to find guys like Pouliot. He's a guy that as he matures, is going to be an important guy on our power play and he's a guy we didn't want to let go."

Pittsburgh will not look to add a second top-six wing, since Rutherford said he is comfortable with the group he has. Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov, who the Penguins signed to a one-year, entry-level contract Wednesday, could find himself among that group.

"We feel Plotnikov could go in the top six. We have to get him over here and see him, actually seeing him within our group," Rutherford said. "But he's a really good player. Whether he can play in our top six or not, we'll find out. But he'll certainly be one of our forwards that we believe can help our team."

The Penguins were in on discussions to acquire the rights to forward Brandon Saad before he was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Rutherford confirmed. But while Pittsburgh was "poking around" on that trade and on other fronts, Rutherford said Kessel was always the Penguins' primary target.

"We're in most deals, so we're talking about different players," Rutherford said. "But Kessel was our main target. When you look at his goal-scoring ability and the speed, that was really the ideal player we were looking for."

Rutherford said the source of pride he felt after making the trade stemmed from the thought that he made the Penguins better.

"The personal satisfaction I feel is, I believe that we've improved our team," Rutherford said. "It's hard to score goals in this league. You play a lot of one-goal games, and when you can get a pure goal-scorer, that's going to give you a better chance to win games.

"You can never know with trades. It's over time, is really how you judge trades. We got the best player in the trade, right now. And it usually works out for the team that gets the best player."

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