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Should the Vancouver Canucks sign Phil Kessel?

“The Vancouver Canucks are poking around Phil Kessel.”
Phil Kessel is still looking to sign with an NHL team as a free agent this season.

With the NHL trade deadline still one month away, the Vancouver Canucks have already parted ways with a couple of their biggest trade chips.

General manager Patrik Allvin prioritized acquiring Elias Lindholm — a versatile, two-way, top-six forward — and set the market for the rest of the NHL by spending a first-round pick, a top-performing prospect in Hunter Brzustewicz, and a roster player in Andrei Kuzmenko to get him. 

The Lindholm trade is a game-changer for the Canucks, but the price Allvin paid limits their options when it comes to upgrading other elements of the roster. If the Canucks don’t want to trade one of the three players they see as their top prospects — Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Tom Willander, and Elias Pettersson — and don’t want to move their 2025 first-round pick with so much uncertainty surrounding next season, they’re unlikely to meet the asking price for any of the big names on the trade market. 

But there still seems to be a desire to improve the Canucks’ roster to take a real shot at winning the Stanley Cup this season. The Canucks would like a right-shot defenceman and could use an upgrade on the wings. They could look to make a minor trade to pick up an undervalued player but they could also try to add a player without spending any assets at all, as there’s still one big-name free agent on the market: Phil Kessel.

"There's value in Phil."

Kessel’s name has come up a few times this season, as the 36-year-old veteran is still staying in hockey shape and looking for a team with whom to sign. He has a history with Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet, who was known as the “Phil Kessel Whisperer” when he was an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and also coached him with the Arizona Coyotes. 

When asked about Kessel at the NHL All-Star Game, Tocchet gave him a vote of confidence.

“There’s value in Phil,” said Tocchet. “I think he can still play, 100 per cent.”

According to ChekTV’s Rick Dhaliwal, the Canucks have some interest in the three-time Stanley Cup champion.

“The Vancouver Canucks are poking around Phil Kessel,” said Dhaliwal on Thursday’s Donnie and Dhali show.

Of course, that could just be due diligence for Allvin and his management team. They wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t explore options and throw ideas around about improving the team. 

“The Vancouver Canucks still talk and discuss Kessel,” said Dhaliwal. “They keep in regular contact with his agent. They like his experience, what he’s done in the past. He’s got a relationship with Tocchet, Allvin, and Rutherford.”

"He has not played in eight months."

It’s easy to see the appeal. Kessel has Cup-winning experience, a history as a goalscorer, and — most importantly — would be cheap, both in terms of giving up no assets to acquire him and in terms of cap hit. His last contract was a one-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights worth $1.5 million. He’d be even cheaper for the Canucks.

There are a few question marks, however, one of which was raised by Dhaliwal.

“The big issue: conditioning,” said Dhaliwal. “He has not played in eight months, he played only four playoff games for Vegas last year when they won the Stanley Cup. That will be Kessel’s biggest issue: are you in shape? The number one thing Tocchet did when he got to Vancouver, Donny? Got everybody in shape.”

There’s a bigger question than conditioning, however. Kessel has always been in great shape despite unfair jabs at his weight from the media when he was in Toronto. He holds the NHL record for most consecutive games played at 1064, an Ironman streak that will still be active if and when he signs with a team this season. It’s easy to believe that he’s kept his conditioning up despite the long stretch without playing games.

No, the bigger question is whether Kessel would even be an upgrade for the Canucks’ roster.

Where would Kessel fit on the Canucks' roster?

If the Canucks or their fans are thinking of Kessel as a top-six winger to push one of Pius Suter or Ilya Mikheyev down the lineup, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Last season, Kessel primarily played on the fourth line for the Golden Knights, though he was also on their second power play unit. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Kessel played just four games, all in the first round, and was a healthy scratch the rest of the way as the Golden Knights went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Kessel was able to chip in some scoring from that depth role, tallying 14 goals and 36 points in 82 games, but if he wasn’t a top-six forward — or even in the lineup — for a Cup-winning team like the Golden Knights, then he’s probably not going to be a top-six forward for a Cup-contending team like the Canucks a year later.

If the thought is instead to add Kessel as experienced depth, then he still doesn’t make a lot of sense.

There’s a distinct identity to the Canucks’ bottom-six forward group this season, based around tough, two-way play and speed on the forecheck. The line of Conor Garland, Teddy Blueger, and Dakota Joshua has been one of the team’s best, most consistent lines, while Nils Höglander and Sam Lafferty have contributed forechecking and scoring in equal measure while centred by either Suter or Nils Åman.

Kessel simply does not fit that identity. While his defensive issues may have been exaggerated in the past, he’s still not a great two-way player and definitely isn’t known for his forechecking. While Kessel might be able to help the second power play unit, is it worth disrupting what’s working for the Canucks at 5-on-5?

Phil Kessel's isolated impact heat map. Dataviz: HockeyViz

With the current Canucks lineup, Tocchet is able to roll all four lines and trust that each line can play a north-south, two-way game. Adding Kessel to play in a sheltered, power-play-specialist role would completely change that dynamic.

Thinking outside the box for a Kessel solution

There is one role that Kessel might be suited for with the Canucks, however: injury insurance. 

The Canucks’ forwards have been remarkably healthy all season, with only Suter, Blueger, and Phil Di Giuseppe missing any significant time and never with enough overlap to truly test the Canucks’ depth. If the Canucks do face injuries in their top-six, do they have players capable of filling in?

While Kessel might not be an upgrade for the Canucks with everyone healthy, he might be a better option to fill in for injuries than the team’s depth in the AHL.

There’s one way for the Canucks to test that: sign Kessel to a Professional Tryout (PTO). No, not a PTO with the Vancouver Canucks — a PTO with the Abbotsford Canucks.

The Pittsburgh Penguins did exactly that with Jesse Puljujarvi a month ago, with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins signing him to a PTO in the AHL so he could get some games in after coming off of hip surgery in the offseason and potentially earn an NHL contract. Puljujarvi played well enough that he signed a two-year NHL contract with an average annual value of $800,000. He made his Pittsburgh Penguins debut on Wednesday.

So, why not do the same with Kessel? If he’s serious about making an NHL return, why not sign him to a PTO with the Abbotsford Canucks so he can get back up to game speed and prove that he can contribute in Vancouver?

Would Kessel be willing to do that — to play in the AHL for the first time since 2006? Maybe. Maybe not.

Whatever happens, Kessel needs to sign somewhere soon. If he’s not signed by the March 8 trade deadline, he can’t play in the playoffs and pursue his fourth Stanley Cup.