What’s the old saying? Desperate times call for desperate measures? In the wake of last season’s disappointing finish—not to mention the recent announcement that owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle are looking to sell—the Penguins went all out to regain their luster.
In the biggest trade of the summer Pens GM Jim Rutherford sent perennial prospect Scott Harrington, pricey grinder Nick Spaling, and last season’s No. 1 pick Kasperi Kapanen to Toronto for Phil Kessel, Tyler Biggs, and Tim Erixon. Toronto also received a third-round pick in 2016 Entry Draft, with a provision for an exchange of conditional picks down the road.
The addition of Kessel—a five-time 30-goal scorer and one of the NHL’s deadliest snipers—gives the black and gold the bona fide scoring winger they’ve lacked since the departure of James Neal. Like the “Real Deal,” Kessel carries a reputation for prickly behavior.
“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.”
The acquisition of Kessel and his whopping $8 million cap hit is a gamble—one the Pens hope will boost sagging ticket sales—not to mention the team’s performance come playoff time.
Initial reports slot the speedy Madison, Wisconsin native next to Sidney Crosby and David Perron on a potentially lethal top line, bumping Patric Hornqvist to the second unit with Evgeni Malkin. Veterans Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis would bookend Brandon Sutter on the third line.
Rutherford also added a potential linemate for Malkin—fellow Russian Sergei Plotnikov. A six-year KHL veteran and World Championship star, the 6’2″ 205-pounder signed a one-year entry-level deal. Belying his European roots, Plotnikov employs a punishing style that seems tailor-made for the cozier confines of NHL rinks. The 25-year-old forward possesses some skill to boot. He set career highs in assists (21) and points (36) in 56 games with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
The Fish That Got Away
The black and gold had hoped to sign Plotnikov’s countryman Viktor Tikhonov. The former Arizona forward joined Chicago on a one-year deal instead.
Seven players who skated for the Penguins in 2014-15 departed on the first day of free-agency. Veteran defender Paul Martin, who inked a lucrative 4-year deal with San Jose, topped the list. Other departures included forwards Blake Comeau (Colorado), Steve Downie (Arizona), Jayson Megna (Rangers), and Daniel Winnik (Toronto), depth defenseman Taylor Chorney (Washington) and backup goalie Thomas Greiss (Islanders).
Barring future moves, the Pens plan to plug the gaps from within. Rangy Oskar Sundqvist is a virtual lock for the fourth-line center spot. Forwards Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, and newly signed Conor Sheary (20 goals with the Baby Pens) will get long looks in training camp. Feisty fan favorite Bobby Farnham should be in the mix, too, along with husky newcomer Biggs.
On defense, Martin’s departure opens the door for gifted Derrick Pouliot, who impressed in spurts last season but lacked consistency. Brian Dumoulin, solid in last spring’s playoffs, should be ready for full-time duty. Jeff Zatkoff could return as backup to Marc-Andre Fleury.
Several former Pens changed addresses. Speedy Brian Gibbons signed with the Rangers; Chris Connor joined the Flyers. Mark Arcobello (Toronto), Mark Letestu (Edmonton), and Zbynek Michalek (Arizona) also moved to new teams.