PITTSBURGH (AP) — Phil Kessel spent six years in Toronto trying to lift the Maple Leafs out of the churn of mediocrity.
All the goals — 181 of them while wearing a leaf on the front of his sweater — failed to turn Toronto into a contender or quiet the critics who wondered whether the talented forward cared enough or worked hard enough to justify his status as one of the elite players in the NHL.
That won’t be an issue in Pittsburgh, not after the Penguins acquired the 27-year-old in a blockbuster trade on Wednesday they hope will rejuvenate Kessel’s career while giving stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin a running mate that can come close to matching their pedigree and production.
“He was always the guy, he was a guy that was blamed when things weren’t going well, and he doesn’t have to be the guy here,” Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford said. “We have a bunch of them, and so I believe that he’s going to fit in very well.”
The Penguins sent forward prospect Kasperi Kapanen, forward Nick Spaling, defenseman Scott Harrington and a 2016 third-round pick to the Maple Leafs for Kessel, forward Tyler Biggs and defenseman Tim Erixon. Conditional draft picks are also involved.
The centerpiece, however, is Kessel, who has 247 goals and 273 assists in nine seasons between Boston and Toronto, including 25 goals and 36 assists for the Maple Leafs in 2014-15.
Dynamic and dependable — he hasn’t missed a game in more than five seasons — Kessel will get a chance to play with two of the best in the game for the Penguins, who were in desperate need of a top six forward to ignite an offense that limped through an injury-filled season before going out in the first round of the playoffs.
Rutherford stressed it will be on coach Mike Johnston to figure out where Kessel lines up on a given night. He spent more than half a decade shouldering the burden in Toronto, which made the postseason just once with Kessel’s No. 81 in the lineup.
Ready for a fresh start under new coach Mike Babcock, the Maple Leafs will pay a portion of Kessel’s $64 million deal that runs through 2021-22 for the chance to start over.
“I think it’s a good fit for Phil,” Toronto general manager Brendan Shanahan said. “At the same time it stays on our message — with what we were doing here as a group wasn’t working.”
It hasn’t been working in Pittsburgh in recent years either, at least not in the playoffs.
The Stanley Cup that Crosby and Malkin raised in 2009 grows more distant by the day and with both stars starting to face the back end of their primes, the pressure was on for the Penguins to make a splash. Considering the weakness of the free agent class, Rutherford instead honed in on Kessel.
The deal was in the works for the better part of a month and intensified during the NHL draft last weekend.
On the first day of free agency it came together, with the Penguins dealing the talented Kapanen but keeping prized young defensemen Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot in black-and-gold and adding a three-time All-Star.
“We got the best player in the trade right now,” Rutherford said. “It usually works out for the team that gets the best player.”
Pittsburgh believes forward Pascal Dupuis will be back in 2015-16 after missing most of last season with blood clots in his lungs. While Dupuis has proven effective when teamed with Crosby, Kessel’s arrival gives Crosby or Malkin a proven finisher.
“I believe we improved our team,” Rutherford said. “It’s hard to score goals in this league. We play a lot of one-goal games and when you can get a pure goal scorer, that’s going to give you a better chance to win games.”
The Penguins weren’t done with landing Kessel, signing Russian forward Sergei Plotnikov to a one-year deal as well as adding prospects David Warsofsky, Kevin Porter, Kael Mouillerat and Steven Olesky.
The 25-year-old Plotnikov had 15 goals and 21 assists while playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL last season.
“We have to get him over here and see him, actually see him in our group but he’s a real good player,” Rutherford said. “Whether he can play in our top six or not, we’ll find out.”
This story has been corrected to fix to Tyler Biggs instead of Tyler Briggs.
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