PHOENIX — The Arizona Coyotes were one of the NHL’s best defensive teams last season while just missing their first playoff appearance in six years.
The biggest reason they came up short: Lack of scoring.
The Coyotes took a step toward shoring up their long-standing scoring woes on Saturday, acquiring productive winger Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins for center Alex Galchenyuk.
Minor league defenseman Pierre-Oliver Joseph also will go to Pittsburgh and the Coyotes get minor league defenseman Dane Birks and a 2021 fourth-round draft pick.
“We felt the ability to add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said during a conference call. “Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a long time and we think he’s going to come in motivated and ready to go.”
Arizona has been a defensive-minded team since Dave Tippett’s eight seasons in the desert. The Coyotes rode the shutdown approach to the 2012 Western Conference Finals, but haven’t been back to the playoffs since — in large part because they struggle scoring.
Kessel should give them a big boost.
The 31-year-old had 27 goals and 55 assists with the Penguins last season, his fourth with the team. He won Stanley Cup titles with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 with current Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, then a Penguins assistant.
Kessel has scored at least 30 goals six times during a 13-year NHL career that includes stints with Boston and Toronto. He had 34 goals with the Penguins in 2017-18.
The deal comes 10 days after Alex Meruelo was approved as the Coyotes new majority owner.
“I’m just coming in to do what I do best and try to help the team win as many games as possible,” Kessel said. “I think they’re an up-and-coming team, they’ve got a lot of pieces in place and I want to help them along.”
Kessel’s relationship with Tocchet helped spark Arizona’s interest.
Tocchet was dubbed the “Phil Whisperer” during his time as an assistant with Pittsburgh from 2014-17 for his ability to reach Kessel, something head coach Mike Sullivan struggled to do at times during his three-plus year partnership with the talented but tempestuous forward.
Kessel was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Sidney Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy after notching 10 goals and 12 assists. He scored eight goals and 15 assists the next spring as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.
The mercurial Kessel — always reticent with the media — became a fan favorite with the Penguins not only for his blistering shot but also his quirky public persona and 6-foot, 202-pound frame that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the stands.
Tocchet left to take the job at Arizona less than a month after the 2017 finals and though Kessel continued to put up solid numbers — a career-high 92 points in 2017-18, 82 last season — he drew Sullivan’s ire for an occasional inattention to detail on defense and went through prolonged droughts during five-on-five play. There were also concerns about Kessel’s work ethic even though he played every game during his four seasons with the Penguins and his ironman streak is currently at 774 and counting, eighth-longest in NHL history.
“For all the noise that goes on about him, he’s got two Stanley Cups,” Chayka said. “Toc knows him extremely well and he knows what we’re getting.”
Pittsburgh is in the midst of trying to makeover its roster on the fly after getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. General manager Jim Rutherford pointed to the need to change the culture in the dressing room, and Kessel’s departure will give the Penguins a decidedly different and younger look.
The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons and can play both ends of the ice, something that wasn’t always at the top of Kessel’s priority list. Galchenyuk is also considerably cheaper than Kessel. He’s scheduled to make $4.9 million, over $3 million less than Kessel, giving the salary-cap strapped Penguins a little bit of extra money to play with entering free agency.
“First and foremost, I want to thank Phil Kessel for his contributions to the Penguins. He was a key component to our success in winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. We couldn’t have done it without him, and for that, we are grateful,” Rutherford said. “With that being said, we are excited to welcome a young, skilled player in Alex, and add depth to our defense with first-round draft pick Pierre-Olivier Joseph.”