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Phil Kessel could be the finisher Montreal needs

The 30 goal winger is likely on the move, can Montreal steal him from Pittsburgh at his lowest value?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest names on the trade market right now is that of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel, with the sniper likely a victim of salary-cap issues this off-season.

Kessel is coming off another highly productive season, scoring at a point-per-game pace with 27 goals and 55 assists in a full 82 games played. That last part is key as well; Kessel has not missed a game of NHL action since the 2009-10 season, which is incredible given the physical nature of the modern NHL. He is a premier goal-scorer in the game, with six seasons of 30-plus goals, and a career-low total in a full season of 19 goals in his second year with the Boston Bruins.

While possessing a laser of a wrist shot, Kessel continues to put up great numbers as a setup man as well, posting three straight seasons of 45-plus assists. While he is going to be 32 by the start of the next season, he does not appear to be slowing down on the offensive side of the puck.

With the Penguins cap situation becoming a major concern for Jim Rutherford this off-season, Kessel has become the biggest name in trade rumors. He reportedly vetoed a trade to Minnesota based on the Wild’s likely status as a “non-contender.” The deal would have seen Jason Zucker heading back the other way as the focal points of the deal.

Kessel has an eight-team trade list as part of his no-trade clause in his contract, and that may not have the Montreal Canadiens on it. If he were to waive that claude and okay a deal to move to Montreal, he is currently being paid $6,800,000 by the Penguins, with the Toronto Maple Leafs still retaining $1,200,000 of his salary as well, and will be for the next three seasons.

Kessel is not being looked to for his defensive abilities. He would be coming to Montreal to pile up goals and points. This past season in Pittsburgh, Kessel started 76.4% of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, and was still among the bottom six forwards in terms of Corsi against per 60 minutes (CA/60), holding a Corsi-for percentage of 46.8%. As a whole, the Penguins side struggled for much of the year, and it isn’t just Kessel who should be taking blame for defensive woes.

He clearly has his flaws on the defensive side of the puck, but those can’t be the deal-breaker for a team looking to address offensive issues. He needs to play with players who can make up for his deficiencies, and Montreal is a team with several players who can help mitigate the impact of Kessel’s lack of defensive acumen.

Once the other four skaters on the ice have helped get into the offensive zone, all Kessel does is score goals or create high-danger chances. Despite being a right wing, and almost unfairly maligned as a soft player, he makes his money in the most dangerous areas of the ice.

Sean Tierney/Charting Hockey

Living mostly in the home-plate area, Kessel is an immediate goal-scoring upgrade to any line in Montreal. He is going to score goals if you give him the puck in the slot, and Montreal has the playmakers to make that a reality.

What exactly would Kessel cost in a trade? A player capable of regular 25- to 30-goal, seasons does not come cheap in almost any circumstance, but with the Penguins forced to make a deal with little leverage, there is every chance to snag him on a better deal than previously believed. In the vetoed trade to Minnesota, Zucker and Victor Rask were headed the other way. But not for just Kessel, Jack Johnson’s deal, which Pittsburgh is desperately trying to shed, was also involved.

Let me make this unequivocally clear: any deal that forces Montreal to take on Johnson and his contract — four more years for $3.25 million — should be walked away from instantly. Even with Montreal’s need for a left-side defender they should be ignoring any and all paths that lead to Johnson. Kessel brings value to spare, but it is not nearly enough to also take on a massive anchor.

While Montreal might not want to part with their current forwards to match a Zucker-like return, they do have an abundance of prospects and picks to facilitate a trade. Assuming that Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, and Alexander Romanov are off the table, there is still a mountain of other prospects to choose from, depending on what the Penguins greatest need is.

The line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher will likely remain untouched, but both Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi could use a goal-scoring upgrade on their wings. For Domi, Kessel would be a boon for the newly minted centre, posting a career-high 44 assists last year, adding a star sniper might bolster that number further, but defence could be a serious issue that duo.

Even as an 18-year-old in the NHL, Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed poise at both ends of the ice and vision that extended beyond his linemates’ skills more often than not. Joel Armia was an outstanding player for Montreal, but sliding him down the lineup to add Kessel to Kotkaniemi’s wing seems like the sort of move to boost the offence and propel Montreal forward into a playoff spot. Kotkaniemi also showed good defensive chops in his rookie year, so that matchup may make more sense at five-on-five.

Montreal’s right-wing depth at the NHL level currently consists of Gallagher (33 goals), Andrew Shaw (19), Paul Byron (15) and Armia (13), which is not an easy group to crack, but Kessel would immediately increase the offensive production with ease by replacing any one of those final three.

If you’re acquiring a player of Kessel’s calibre, you shift one of them to another spot in the lineup to make room, or add one to the package heading the Penguins’ way. No matter which one departs, adding Kessel means more production overall to the roster.

It is a very intriguing off-season ahead of the Canadiens, and with the potential to add a player of Phil Kessel’s level, they could very well surpass what was a good season this past year.

It won’t necessarily be cheap, but you have to pay to make drastic changes to get closer to the Stanley Cup. Acquiring Kessel could be just the thing Montreal needs to make that push for the NHL’s ultimate prize.