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Why Phil Kessel is intriguing free agent option for Canucks ahead of trade deadline

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Florida Panthers at Vegas Golden Knights
Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Canucks have an intriguing option to consider ahead of the NHL trade deadline March 8. And, it has nothing to do with making a trade.

Phil Kessel is skating this week with the Canucks’ minor league affiliate in Abbotsford. Should the 36-year-old free agent show that he still has something left in the tank, the Canucks could add a three-time Stanley Cup winner without trading someone from its first-place roster.

When word leaked about Kessel’s tryout, for lack of a better word, Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said in a short statement, “Phil has made his way to Vancouver and will be working out in Abbotsford this week.”

Canucks coach Rick Tocchet provided a bit more information after a 4-2 win against the Blackhawks in Chicago on Tuesday.

“He’s going to go down there and skate for two or three days,” Tocchet told reporters. “We’ll see how he is down there and reevaluate from there.”

Related: Top 25 NHL trade candidates ahead of 2024 deadline

Canucks consider signing free agent Phil Kessel

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Seattle Kraken
Apr 13, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Las Vegas Knights forward Phil Kessel (8) is pictured during a game against the Seattle Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Tocchet knows Kessel well. He coached the forward for two seasons with the Arizona Coyotes and was a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant when Kessel helped them win consecutive Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017.

That’s a major selling point for the Canucks.

But even Tocchet needs to see if Kessel can still play. Kessel helped the Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup last season, scoring 14 goals and 36 points in 82 games. But he played only four playoff games, contributing two assists. 

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy made Kessel a healthy scratch after the first-round win against the Winnipeg Jets because he didn’t view him as a top-six forward any more. Nor did the coach believe Kessel fit the role of a bottom-six forward because he’s neither strong defensively nor a grinder.

So, there’s the rub for the Canucks, who are first overall in the NHL with 78 points through 54 games. They are stacked in the top six after adding Elias Lindholm before the All-Star break. And they’ve gotten good production from their third line, especially wing Conor Garland.

Since Kessel is not a fit as fourth-line forward,does he fit at all with the Canucks? He’d likely come in at the League minimum salary, which is a plus. And having a three-time Cup champ in the room is nothing to take lightly.

As a depth option, Kessel would be good insurance against an injury or struggles within the top-nine forward group.

Kessel has scored 413 goals in the NHL; though he reached 20 only once in the past four seasons. Never a great skater, Kessel would need to rely on muscle memory to make a contribution on such a good team. But his experience is invaluable.

There’s much for Allvin and Tocchet to unpack here.

Two of Vancouver’s top competitors in the Western Conference faced a similar decision recently. The Edmonton Oilers signed Stanley Cup winner Corey Perry, who has one assist in five games for them. And the Colorado Avalanche signed skilled forward Zach Parise, who has one goal in five games.

It’s not apples to apples. But very similar, especially with Parise, who also had not played all season.

Add a respected veteran for the stretch run and playoffs without sacrificing someone from your talented roster.

Let’s see how it plays out with Phil Kessel and the Vancouver Canucks.

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