Seven years ago, Ryan Kesler was almost traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2014 NHL trade deadline.
It’s a fascinating what-if scenario. While Kesler wasn’t quite the 41-goal scoring Selke winner that he was a few years earlier, he was still a solid two-way centre who could play in every situation and was in the midst of a 25-goal season. Picture the Penguins with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kesler as a 1-2-3 punch down the middle in the 2014 playoffs.
Instead, the Penguins settled for a trade for Marcel Goc, a competent bottom-six centre but certainly not a major upgrade like Kesler would have been. The Penguins made it to Game 7 in the second round, but were knocked out by the New York Rangers, who went on to lose to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.
On top of that, Kesler had two more years on his contract. He would have been with the Penguins for the 2016 playoffs and won the Stanley Cup that eluded him in his career.
What happened? Why wasn’t he traded? Kesler told his side of the story during an intriguing interview on Sportsnet 650 on Monday.
"Pittsburgh had a deal for me and it fell through."
“I gave Vancouver six or seven teams,” said Kesler when asked about no-trade and no-move clauses. “When they came to me and asked me for teams, I talked to my agent, it was like Tampa, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Detroit was in there, Chicago, Anaheim, and maybe the Rangers.”
At the time, it was thought that Kesler had the Philadelphia Flyers on his list and not the Tampa Bay Lightning or Rangers. There were some interesting names thrown around in rumours at the time, including Brandon Sutter and Derrick Pouliot out of Pittsburgh and Emerson Etem out of Anaheim.
Ironically, all three ended up joining the Canucks eventually, with largely disappointing results.
“I heard Pittsburgh had a deal for me and it fell through, don't know why still to this day,” said Kesler. That’s where it’s interesting to go back and look at other reports on what happened.
A report out of Pittsburgh from Rob Rossi said that the Penguins suspected that the Canucks ownership were preventing a Kesler trade, that Mike Gillis wasn’t authorized to make the deal. As Jason Botchford reported at the time, Gillis and Laurence Gilman tried to make a trade happen — Botchford saw it “with my own eyes” — and he added that Ed Willes had a source who confirmed the story out of Pittsburgh.
In other words, Francesco Aquilini is why the trade with the Penguins fell through.
Gillis denied the rumour that Aquilini nixed the Kesler trade at the time but that’s unsurprising. It’s worth treating Kesler’s claim that he doesn’t know why the trade fell through with a pinch of skepticism as well.
"Jim, it's not your fault, but it's two teams now."
The Penguins offer was reportedly Sutter, a defensive prospect, and two draft picks, though the value of that package really hinges on what two picks were involved. A first and a third, which is what was rumoured, would be disappointing, but what about first round picks in 2014 and 2015? The New York Islanders eventually picked Mathew Barzal with Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in 2015.
That kind of trade package, however, would be much more suitable for a rebuilding team. Gillis reportedly pitched Aquilini on getting a chance to rebuild the team in 2014. Instead, he was fired and Jim Benning was brought in with his mission statement, “This is a team we can turn around in a hurry.”
“So then summer comes,” continued Kesler. “Jim Benning gets hired and Jim calls me and he's like, 'Okay, we have your seven teams. We're gonna get to work here.' I said, 'Jim, it's not your fault, but it's two teams now,' and he got all mad with me.”
According to Kesler, he sliced his original seven-team list down to just two teams after careful consideration. Some of the teams on his original list, like the Detroit Red Wings, were no longer the contenders they once were, and the two teams still on his list, the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks, were headed in a direction he liked.
But there was another element to cutting down his list: frustration.
“I was like, 'Jim, I asked to get dealt last year. It put me in a really bad spot the rest of the year, everybody knew I wanted out. My teammates, everyone. I had to play,’” said Kesler.
This in itself is an interesting addition to the story. It was well known that Kesler asked for a trade after the 2013-14 season but he always denied that he had asked for a trade prior to or during the season. Rumours swirled that he had asked for a trade while playing for Team USA at the 2014 Olympics. It appears that rumour was true and he wasn’t happy that a deal didn’t get done.
“I know it's not your fault,” said Kesler to Benning at the time, “But these are the cards that are dealt now, and this is the two teams I want to play for, Chicago and Anaheim.”
"It wasn't an eff you to the fans, it wasn't an eff you to him."
The deal got done, even if Kesler’s no-trade clause and slimmed-down trade list handcuffed Benning to a certain extent. The return was ultimately quite similar to the rumoured offer from the Penguins: an older Nick Bonino instead of Sutter, the more experienced Luca Sbisa instead of a defensive prospect, and first and third-round picks, with the Canucks also adding a third-round pick to the deal.
Kesler knew that his limited list was frustrating for both Benning and the fans.
“It wasn't an eff you to the fans, it wasn't eff you to him,” said Kesler. “It's just, I thought about it and teams change, right?”
If it wasn’t an eff you to the fans or Benning, perhaps it was an eff you aimed at the person who killed the trade to the Penguins and Kesler’s best shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Perhaps it was an eff you at the person who forced him to play out the 2013-14 season alongside teammates who knew he wanted out. Perhaps it was an “eff you” to Francesco Aquilini.
On the other hand, maybe it just wasn’t an “eff you” at all.
“That's what a no-trade clause can do when taking less money and allowing you to pick the team,” said Kesler. “I heard they were going to ship me off to Buffalo or something and they were going to ship [Kevin] Bieksa off to Buffalo. That was a team that was in the dumps then and that's not where you want to go. I don't want to bring my family there, nothing against Buffalo.”
"Players take less money to have security."
In Kesler’s eyes, he earned his no-trade clause in his contract and he was within his rights to exercise it and ensure he went where he wanted to go.
“Players take less money to have security, to have a no-trade clause, to have a no-move clause, so they can keep their family in one spot and then if they do want to move you, they can't ship you to — pick a spot in a league that you don't want to live or a team you don't want to go to,” said Kesler. “My biggest thing, if I was going to get traded, I wanted to get traded to a contender. Somewhere where I could possibly win, somewhere where my family would enjoy it.”
“It's about earning that,” he added later, “because you have to earn that. They don't just give everybody a no-trade clause or a no-move clause, you have to earn that. To be honest, they gave that to me, so why would I not use that?”
Well, some GMs give almost everybody a no-trade clause, but for the most part, this is true.
Kesler had some other insights into the trade deadline, including a discussion about Adam Gaudette and how important it is to find a niche at the NHL level. According to Kesler, Gaudette hasn’t found that niche yet, whether as a goalscorer, defensive centre, or energy guy.
His best anecdote was about how it feels after a trade deadline where no deals get done and the GM acts as if the lack of trades is actually a vote of confidence for the roster.
“The longer you play, maybe the more jaded you get,” said Kesler. “here's always the GM that comes in and says, 'You know what, we believe in this group,' and you always think like, 'Do you believe in us or you just couldn't make a deal?'”