By Joe Starkey
Set aside the obvious impediments, for just a moment, and acknowledge an obvious truth: Phil Kessel on the Penguins would be an unbelievable spectacle. In a good way.
Get this man out of Toronto, put him next to Sidney Crosby, and your popcorn machine would never sleep.
The Penguins desperately need speed and scoring, right? Kessel would provide both in spades. He's easily the most desirable name among the trade targets linked to this team. The man has 275 points over the past four seasons (six fewer than Alex Ovechkin). He's still only 27.
So the question isn't whether the Penguins have a good chance to land Kessel in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. They probably don't, for reasons we'll discuss. The question is whether they should thoroughly explore the idea, in spite of myriad road blocks, and keep an open mind.
The answer is a resounding yes.
Kessel, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, has Pittsburgh among the eight landing spots he would accept in a trade. The others are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Montreal and the New York Rangers.
That could change. Kessel could add new teams before July 1. The Leafs could ask him to amend the list. But it's no surprise the Penguins would be on it. For all their issues, they remain a desirable spot for a talented offensive player who wants to win.
Now the road blocks:
• What would the Penguins be willing to give up (always such an inconvenient question in these scenarios)?
• Kessel has an $8 million annual cap hit that runs through 2021-22, a serious impediment for a team carrying hits of $9.25 million (Malkin), $8.7 million (Crosby) and $7.25 million (Kris Letang) that run just as long.
• Kessel's reputation.
Let's address these in reverse order, and let's get right to the point: Kessel carries the rap of an often-apathetic, out-of-shape enigma who makes life hard on coaches (a coach Phil-ler, you might say).
Fair or not, that reputation could work to the Penguins' advantage, as it might scare off suitors from an already limited list.
The Penguins can't afford to be too picky. When you're constantly searching for wingers, these are the chances you take. Especially on proven high-end talent.
The Penguins would have to bet on themselves and their captain, Crosby, providing a stable situation for Kessel, who undoubtedly would love to get away from Toronto's insane media glare.
I know this: The last time we saw Kessel playing high-stakes hockey, he was torching the Bruins for four goals in seven games. I know he has 13 goals in 22 career playoff games, too.
The contract is a major issue. But if the Leafs, now under the stewardship of Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock, really want to get rid of Kessel and don't find somebody they can fleece, they might have to adjust. That could mean eating part Kessel's contract (doubtful) or taking on an onerous contract from another team (Chris Kunitz or Rob Scuderi, Mr. Shanahan?).
Meanwhile, the Penguins have only one pick in the first four rounds this weekend and aren't in position to give up on what little elite young talent they possess. If I'm another team, I've got my eyes on Derrick Pouliot or Olli Maatta. The Penguins need both of them. Their best hope is that Toronto simply wants to shed Kessel's salary, get a decent return and get him out of their locker room.
It's possible. It's also conceivable that Brandon Sutter, some future picks and a young defenseman could be involved in a deal like that. Or maybe Babcock will want the challenge of coaching Kessel. Maybe the Leafs will simply wait, choosing not to sell low.
All things are possible in what promises to be a crazy NHL week. The Penguins will have their eyes wide open, likely gazing at the likes of Alex Semin, Patrick Sharp, T.J. Oshie and who knows who else?
But I know this: If Phil Kessel becomes a realistic option, the Penguins would be crazy to look away.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/8610918-74/kessel-penguins-leafs#ixzz3dtjltJqG
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