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ONE YEAR LATER, THE TRUTH BEHIND THE PHIL KESSEL TRADE TO ARIZONA

It has been exactly one year now since Phil Kessel was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Arizona Coyotes in a deal that many believed would never get done. The return for the 31-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup winner was forward Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and minor league defenseman Dane Birks. There has been plenty of speculation as to why Kessel was shipped out of Pittsburgh, including that he demanded a trade, poor relationships with certain teammates and that his relationship with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was less than cordial. Josh Yohe, who covers Pittsburgh for The Athletic and is an excellent source of Penguins news, has shed some light on the situation with a new article.

Yohe's article includes a quote from a former teammate of Kessel who asked to remain anonymous.

"I don’t think Phil hated Sully, said the unnamed player. "I just don’t think Phil likes coaches or being told what to do. Sully got on him during a flight one time for not playing more of a two-way game. When Sully went back to his seat, Phil looked up and said, ‘F--- him.’ We all liked Phil a lot. We still do. And we all like and respect Sully a ton. He’s a great coach. But they had their moments.”

So, it seems there is an element of truth behind the diminishing relationship between Kessel and Sullivan. In fact, Yohe states Kessel appears to have a point with every coach where they are no longer interested in having him around. Yohe spoke with Jack Parker, the legendary former Boston University coach, who happens to be Sullivan’s close friend and mentor. Here's what he had to say:

“I wouldn’t coach Kessel if he was playing across the street, to be honest with you. I know Michael had his battles with Kessel. But you know what? He got a lot of out Kessel and they won championships together.”

As for whether Kessel demanded to be traded, Yohe said he doesn't believe that happened. He, instead, believes there was a mutual agreement between Kessel and Sullivan that Kessel's time in Pittsburgh was up. Sullivan would not expand on that, even one year later.

“It’s not something that I want to get into,” Rutherford told Yohe.



As for Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, he told Yohe a couple of days ago that the move was purely a monetary one.

“It was ultimately a cap thing,” Rutherford said. “There’s really not that much more to talk about. It’s the same with (Marc-Andre) Fleury. Would I have liked to have kept Fleury? Of course. Would I have liked to have kept Kessel? Of course. You get forced to make certain moves because of the cap. Were there some issues with Phil? Yeah, but the cap was the biggest thing.”

"To be honest with you, we were fortunate to be able to move him,” Rutherford said. “I like Phil as a person. I respect him. And I know what a great player he is. But the cap forces things like this. We’re still up against the cap even without him and without (Alex Galchenyuk, who was traded to Minnesota in the deal that did indeed see the Penguins get their man in Zucker). We had to take a player that Arizona wanted to move to make it work for them.”

As for whether Kessel was already in decline when the Penguins traded him, Yohe points to his stats in Arizona this year as evidence of that. In 70 games, Kessel managed 14 goals and 38 points and was on pace for his lowest point total in 12 years. Yohe offers a nice summary of what ultimately led to Kessel getting dealt away from Pittsburgh:

• His teammates, to a man, loved him and found him entertaining.

• Coaches never expected him to be a Selke candidate and, while they knew he could be difficult, tolerated his quirks because of his talent and big-game greatness.

• When the Stanley Cup years started to get distant in the rearview mirror, it was determined that Kessel’s time had come to an end.

TIM TUCKER
JUNE 29, 2020  (15H45)
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