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Coyotes fill glaring need without free agency with trade for Phil Kessel

Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck during the second period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotagainst the Arizona Cardinalsat Gila River Arena on January 18, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — With free agency looming on July 1, the Arizona Coyotes got a jump start on Saturday by adding Phil Kessel via a trade. They seem to believe it’s for the best that they did it that way.

“I don’t even want to try to fathom a guess of what he would receive on the open market,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said.

At $6.8 million a year for three more years, the Coyotes get a proven goal-scorer but do so below what the current free agent market likely would bear for a player of his ilk — both in dollars and in years committed. Arizona gets to circumvent the free agency process, which gets underway Monday, July 1, at 9 a.m. The Coyotes already have what they needed.

“Between Carl [Soderberg] and Phil, we wanted to make at least one or two moves up front to improve our group. We feel like we’ve done it,” Chayka said. “A lot of our success will depend on our players that we’ve got and we need guys to have career years and step up and if we can do that, we’re really excited about what this group can do.”

Arizona finished 28th in the NHL in goals last season. They add Kessel, who hasn’t scored fewer than 20 goals in a season since his second year in the league, the 2007-08 season (he had 19 that year). The 31-year-old had 82 points last year, which on the Coyotes would’ve been the most since Keith Tkachuk had 86 points in the team’s first year in the Valley back in 1996-97.

Kessel also hasn’t missed a game since 2009-10.

In past trades — and in the one that was consummated on Saturday — Chayka has remarked afterward that in the NHL, one must give to get. Nothing is free, not even Kessel, a player who was said to want out of Pittsburgh (Kessel seemed to dispute this claim in a conference call with reporters after the trade). Regardless of Kessel’s cap hit, the Coyotes still paid a premium by giving up Alex Galchenyuk — a top-six forward who had 19 goals last season and once scored 30 in a year — and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, a defensive prospect whom Arizona drafted in the first round just two years ago.

“I liked Alex a lot, had a good relationship with him, wish him nothing but the best,” Chayka said. “I expect him to do extremely well in Pittsburgh and that’s part of a trade. We’ve got to give to get, and we did, but feel like the opportunity to get a player we haven’t had here for a long time and one that’s consistent and proven … that was why we made the trade.”

The Coyotes also got back a 2021 fourth-round pick and minor-league defenseman Dane Birks in the trade.

Galchenyuk was going to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season. Kessel is signed for the next three seasons.

The motivation for the Coyotes to add a scorer in Kessel is obvious. The motivation for Kessel to want to come to Arizona is there, too, now reuniting with head coach Rick Tocchet, who was an assistant in Pittsburgh. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported Saturday that Arizona was on Kessel’s approved list of teams as part of his modified no-trade clause.

“Obviously [Tocchet’s] a friend of mine and I think he’s a great coach and a good person,” Kessel said. “I want to help him succeed and do great things in Phoenix, and I’m looking forward to it.

“I think we like the same things. I think he’s a good person, I think he cares about everyone and like I said, he’s a great man.”

As Chayka noted, it’s been a while since the Coyotes have had a player like Kessel. Last season, Arizona didn’t have a player score 20 goals, and the team was riddled with injuries to key players. Neither scoring nor injuries have historically been a problem for Kessel.

“I think at the end of the day, our goal with this trade was: I’m a big process guy, I think you need to consistently outplay the other team in order to win, but ultimately there’s a scoreboard up there that counts the number of times the black puck goes over the line,” Chayka said. “And Phil does it as well as anybody in the league.”

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