The NHL’s Ironman saw his contract expire with the Golden Knights exactly two months ago. With just three weeks to the start of training camp, Phil Kessel remains on the open market. He’s trying to dispel one of the biggest question marks that would come with signing him, one the Golden Knights would certainly be weary of.
The three-time Stanley Cup champion wants to play again in 2023-24. But, the most significant detail is that he’s let teams know it won’t be a problem if he’s not an everyday player. –Elliotte Friedman on Sportsnet.ca
For a team chasing a Stanley Cup, or in VGK’s case another Stanley Cup, that detail is crucial as the potential distraction it could cause may not be worth the added production the player will bring. However, with Kessel admitting he’s okay with breaking the streak to continue his career, it certainly opens the door a bit wider for a return to Las Vegas.
I can honestly say, I’m completely on the fence on this one. So, rather than choose a side, I’ll present both, and let you decide if you want him back or not.
The Case For Re-Signing Phil Kessel
The Golden Knights just won the Stanley Cup with a roster that remains largely intact. Despite not playing a majority of the playoff games down the stretch, Kessel was an everyday player in the regular season and started the first game of the postseason. He played in multiple places in the top nine, was a full-time option on the power play, and often found himself on the ice when the Golden Knights were chasing a goal late in games.
The trade of Reilly Smith has created a hole in the power play, and Kessel would instantly offer a familiar option to replace him. While the Golden Knights do have a few other younger guys waiting in the wings, if there was a must-win game tomorrow, Kessel would be the selection over every single one of them without question.
Eliminating the stigma of breaking the streak means Bruce Cassidy could use Phil as he did in the playoffs during the entire 2023-24 regular season. He played with every forward on the roster at some point last year and would have been the first option off the bench had VGK lost an offensive-minded forward at any point during the playoff run. While the player himself is not versatile, his usage in the lineup has shown to be.
Plus, Kessel is a beloved member of the locker room. No matter who you ask, or sometimes even if you don’t ask them, Kessel will come up as a standout figure in the room. Players love to play with him, and even more so, they just simply love to be around him.
Finally, Kessel is eligible for a 35+ contract with performance bonuses. The benefit here is that the bonuses do not have to be counted on this year’s cap. The Golden Knights could sign Kessel to a league minimum deal and then work in bonuses that will allow him to make a more reasonable salary for a player of his stature. If he doesn’t hit them, because he didn’t play enough, no harm no foul. But, even if he does, Vegas wouldn’t be required to fit them under this season’s salary cap.
The Case Against Re-Signing Phil Kessel
Bringing back a player like Kessel will have a fairly significant opportunity cost on the rest of the roster, especially the younger players. As mentioned above, Kessel is a better hockey player at this very moment than every option to fill the open slot in the VGK lineup. Having Phil around will likely mean he’ll be in the lineup, keeping someone else out.
NHL Experience is a necessary element to player development and with another usable (and legendary) body in the building, that experience will be limited for players like Paul Cotter, Pavel Dorofeyev, and Brendan Brisson.
Also, Kessel comes with some serious limitations. Even if you put aside the knock on his defending (which wasn’t really that bad last year, but is far from good), he can only play right wing, he doesn’t kill penalties, and he has to play with highly skilled forwards to be effective. There’s a reason why Cassidy leaned on Michael Amadio and Brett Howden over Kessel in the playoffs, and clearly, that decision was the right one.
Yes, Kessel has said he’s willing to break the Ironman streak to continue playing, and while that sounds all good and well, it still will actually have to happen at some point. Doing it on opening night would probably be the simplest way to limit the impact of the story, but even that adds an unnecessary subplot to what should be a day all about celebrating the champs. No matter when that day comes, it will be a distraction, and it could become an even bigger one if there are players in the room who don’t believe the timing is right.
All in all, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze. He did post 14 goals and 38 points in 82 games last year, but those numbers were heading in the wrong direction all year. In the final 28 games of the regular season, Kessel scored just three goals and added eight assists.
Familiarity is nice, but finding a more well-rounded player would be a better use of the limited cap space the Golden Knights have left heading into 2023-24.