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The Pens Get Their Man in Kessel

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens got their man.

As Day 1 of NHL free agency hit, the Pens landed superstar winger Phil Kessel in a six-player deal.

“Kessel was our main target,” Pens general manager Jim Rutherford said. “When you look at his goal-scoring ability and his speed, that was the ideal player we were looking for.

“(Kessel) was our No. 1 target.”

In a deal that took a little over a month to come together, the Pens acquired Kessel and two former first-round picks Tyler Biggs and Tim Erixon in exchange for Nick Spaling and prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington.

The teams also exchanged draft picks. Toronto received a 2016 third-round pick, previously acquired from New Jersey. A conditional pick could also change depending upon several scenarios (laid out here).

Toronto will retain 15 percent of Kessel’s $8 million dollar salary, which means he will have a cap hit of $6.8 million for Pittsburgh. Kessel’s deal runs through the 2021-22 season.

So, let’s start with Kessel. The Pens made it clear that they wanted to upgrade two areas of the team: skill and speed. They accomplished both in one player.

Kessel, 27, is a legitimate superstar in the NHL. His unique blend of speed, skill and shot put him in the upper echelon in the league.

Kessel is faster than a bullet, he’s extremely intelligent and the puck explodes off his stick with incredible power and velocity. What really makes Kessel stand out from the pack is his shot.

It’s true that many players in the NHL can shoot hard and accurate. What really separates Kessel from the pack and puts him in the elite category is that he can sustain his high level of power and velocity when shooting from poor angles, off balance or in tight (think Alex Ovechkin).

When a player can shoot from any angle at any time, it’s difficult for a goalie to track. When a player can shoot hard and accurate from any angle at any time, it’s impossible for a goalie to stop. Which means players like Kessel and Alex Ovechkin are so good at scoring off the rush.

To put it another way, Kessel is a finisher. He’s exactly what the Pens need.

Pittsburgh was a top-10 team defensively last year, and only allowed two goals in each of its four losses to the NY Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury was the team’s MVP and a stud between the pipes. What Pittsburgh needed was more scoring.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best playmakers in the world. And now they have an elite finisher. Kessel will be a dangerous threat on the Pens’ power play and adds a right-hand shot.

Kessel will also get a fresh start in Pittsburgh. The media raised questions about his play and character last season. But he was the No. 1 guy in the biggest hockey market in the world in Toronto. Now he can focus on hockey and be just one of the guys on a team filled star players.

“I don’t have any concerns,” Rutherford said. “I’ve done a lot of homework on this and I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I do believe a fresh start, getting out of Toronto – where he went under the microscope from Day 1 and he was always the guy; he was a guy that was blamed when things weren’t going well – (will benefit him). He doesn’t have to be the guy here. We have a bunch of them. So I believe that he’s going to fit in very well.”

Factor in the signing of Sergei Plotnikov and the Pens will have a top-9 group of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Plotnikov, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, David Perron, Pascal Dupuis and Brandon Sutter.

Biggs and Erixon are two former first-round picks. They have a lot of potential, but haven’t found been able to find their way in the NHL. Biggs is big (6-foot-2, 223 pounds) and likes to play a gritty, physical, nasty game. Erixon has some NHL experience from last season and has hockey bloodlines (his father Jan played in the league). The Pens are hoping a change of scenery will help Biggs fulfill his potential. Rutherford noted that Erixon will complete for an NHL job at training camp.

“Biggs hasn’t really gotten going the way he should’ve after being a first-round pick since he turned pro,” Rutherford said. “He’s a big body and he has some things to offer if he can develop a little more. In Erixon’s case, he has some NHL experience, he’s a first-round pick and he’s a guy that can come in and make our team.”

To get something, you have to give up something.

The Pens had to part with one of their top defensive prospects in Harrington, but managed to keep their two blue chip blueliners Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot with the team. Spaling was added to the deal to “make the money work.” And Kasperi Kapanen was a forward prospect that the Maple Leafs coveted.

All in all, a small price to pay for landing Kessel.

“It’s hard to score goals in this league, and when you play a lot of one-goal games – to get a pure goal scorer, that’s going to give you a better chance to win games,” Rutherford said. “We got the best player in the trade, so it usually works out the best for the team that gets the best player.

“We gave up Spaling off our team that was a good, solid player for us, but not at the level of Phil Kessel. We gave prospects and you don’t know how they’re going to turn out. But to not take a lot off our team and add Phil Kessel – at this point in time – gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

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