Let's make one thing clear - Phil Kessel will not be traded this season. He's been their most consistent player all year, and is one of the league's best scorers.
While he would command a massive haul on the trade market, the Pittsburgh Penguins are back in the thick of things as far as the playoff race is concerned, and it would make zero reason to trade him away.
In fact, they're trying to trade for a centre to help him.
But that doesn't mean he won't be traded sooner than expected.
Kessel has 4 more years at $8 million per season - and his future with Pittsburgh is heavily tied with Patric Hornqvist and Daniel Sprong. Hornqvist is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, but the belief is that Jim Rutherford will do everything he can to bring him back. He's one of the most important players on the team, especially when the playoffs roll around.
Sprong is touted as the next Kessel. All three of these guys are right wingers, and it would create quite the log jam. Assuming Sprong achieves his potential, the organization will prioritize him over Kessel, given the age difference and cap hit. There always has to be a turnover in an organization, and we're approaching that point with Kessel.
It's hard to say if it will happen this offseason, or in a year from now. But every year Rutherford waits, the likelier it is Kessel's value gets reduced.
"I don't think anyone is saying it's a guarantee. Just that it's an option," Jason Mackey said in a post for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when asked if Kessel will be traded. "Also, they're both exclusively right wings. Same for Hornqvist. That's a logjam. Kessel also has a big contract. If Sprong does the same thing, plays the same position, and the Penguins can reasonably backfill that position, that's why you consider at least listening. Hey, if the offers aren't good, don't do anything. But if someone like what Kessel has done -- the stock is high -- maybe there's someone out there willing to overpay. You're dealing from a position of strength rather than weakness."
Evidently, as we and Mackey said, there's no guarantee Kessel gets traded. He could ride out the rest of his contract. If they can't re-sign Hornqvist, that gives Kessel a lot more security in Pittsburgh. Same goes if Sprong doesn't turn into the player people expect him to become. It doesn't help that Mike Sullivan doesn't think he's mature enough yet to play full-time on his roster.
Kessel is a fan-favorite, to be sure, but people have to accept the fact that if the stars align, Rutherford will almost certainly investigate the potential returns for one of his best players.