As all remains quiet on the New York Islanders free-agent front, the most durable winger in the league, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with a brash anti-hero attitude and play-making ability remains unsigned.
That's of course, is Phil Kessel.
Kessel wasn't at the top of any Islanders free-agent lists and understandably so. The team needs to get younger, faster, and ideally bring in players in their prime or with upside. But as the list of impact forwards available dwindles and salary cap space remains a challenge, the 34-year-old that will turn 35 in October might deserve a closer look if the Islanders' Top 9 is going to undergo any type of mini-makeover.
Kessel's production expectedly dipped after being traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Arizona Coyotes in 2019, but still put up 52 points with the Coyotes last season (8 G, 44 A) despite career lows in shooting % (4.6%) and his lowest time-on-ice (16:41) since playing as a 21-year-old on the 2008-09 Boston Bruins. The shooting % jumps out as an outlier. He scored 20 goals in just 56 games the prior season with a shooting % of a whopping 17.4%.
Still, Kessel finished third on the team in points behind only Clayton Keller (63) and Nick Schmaltz (59) for a Coyotes team that finished last in the NHL with just 206 goals scored. To put that in perspective, the Islanders, who did not have a 60-point scorer in 2021-22, were 22nd in the league with 229 averaging 2.8 goals-per-game.
He's also the NHL's new iron-man. When the Philadelphia Flyers scratched Keith Yandle at 989 consecutive games, Kessel took over the reign. He now stands at 982 consecutive games played and is on track to to break the record early next season.
The Islanders' weakness in their forward group is on the wing. Anders Lee is a reliable net-front presence and it was very encouraging to see him net 28 goals in his first season back from ACL surgery. And while Kyle Palmieri found his scoring touch in the second half of the season, questions remain as to whether he can return to the 30-goal scorer he was in New Jersey.
After that, none of Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, and Oliver Wahlstrom scored 15 goals last season. Beauvillier certainly underachieved and if he remains on the Island, it will be because the team still sees 20-goal potential. Meanwhile, a fresh start for Wahlstrom under Lane Lambert could lead to more consistent playing time and chances to show off his elite shot.
The Islanders haven't exactly steered away from veteran players in recent seasons: Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, and Zdeno Chara all joined the Islanders in their late 30's (or mid-40s) and to varying degrees of success made contributions on and off the ice.
The most impressive of that group was Parise. The 37-year-old was signed to a 1-year deal at the league minimum after being bought out by the Minnesota Wild. It took a while for Parise's stats to catch up to how noticeable he was on the ice throughout the season, filling multiple roles for Barry Trotz and spending time on the PP unit. He finished the season with 15 goals and 20 assists and earned himself a 1-year extension that was announced at the trade deadline in March. Parise was the only Islander to play in all 82 games during last year's unusual season.
Perhaps Parise's success could give the Islanders' front office confidence that Kessel could also surprise in a similar way and show there is plenty left in the tank when put in a better situation. At this point in his career, Kessel can be selective about which situation he wants to join. We've seen Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, and Cory Perry in recent seasons sign on to team-friendly deals for the right situation, one that included a chance to win a Stanley Cup.
Last season, the Islanders were viewed as one of those teams. That perspective may no longer exist after missing the playoffs and firing Trotz, but if Kessel is looking to make an offensive impact on a team, the Islanders are positioned to be a team that could give him that opportunity.