NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Ryan Kesler Watch has become part of the Commonwealth Cold War.
The Penguins and in-state, division rival Philadelphia Flyers have emerged as top contenders to acquire Kesler before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Kesler, a center for the Vancouver Canucks, has drawn interest from several clubs, but he controls his fate by possessing a full no-trade clause in his contract.
The Penguins are confident Kesler will waive that clause to play for a franchise run by general manager Ray Shero, who impressed him during their time together with Team USA at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
However, anticipating a significant offer by the Flyers, the Penguins have softened their stance against including top prospect Derrick Pouliot, a defenseman, in a deal for Kesler.
Shero inquired about Kesler in January and last week proposed sending center Brandon Sutter, a first- and third-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and defensemen Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin in exchange for Kesler.
The Penguins were told by Vancouver that a deal for Kesler must include an NHL forward 25 years of age or younger, a top prospect and at least a first-round pick, multiple sources said.
Ownership has authorized Shero to sweeten the deal to land Kesler as the Penguins believe his acquisition would improve dramatically their chances to win the Stanley Cup in one of the next three postseasons.
Kesler, 29, is a former 40-goal scorer and past winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward. He has two years remaining on a contract that counts $5 million annually against the salary cap, which is projected to rise from $64.3 million to at least $71 million next season.
Shero has made at least one move in the month before or at the deadline in six of seven previous seasons. In those deals, Shero has surrendered six roster players, six prospects and 12 draft choices.
Before recent injuries to top-line right winger Pascal Dupuis and defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, Shero had sought only a “hockey trade” as opposed to acquiring rental players as he did last season.
Shero now is looking at players on expiring contracts to fill voids left by Dupuis and Letang, neither of whom is expected to play again this season, the sources said.
Don Waddell, a Penguins pro scout upon whom Shero leans heavily, has scouted New Jersey over the past week. The Penguins are looking to add a puck-moving defenseman and are intrigued by the Devils’ Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky, 37, comes with a $3 million cap hit and is on an expiring contract.
Edmonton right winger Ales Hemsky, 30, also is on an expiring contract, and the Penguins have looked at him as a possible fit for the top line with Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz.
Hemsky’s cap hit is $5 million, and the Oilers reportedly are seeking a second-round pick. The Penguins traded theirs last season to acquire defenseman Douglas Murray from San Jose.
The Penguins, per club policy, do not make public their cap standing. They do not believe space will hinder potential deadline deals because of relief that could come by placing injured players on the long-term injury list. Players on that list cannot play for 10 games and 24 days, but they are not on the cap until rejoining the active roster.
The Penguins have goalie Tomas Vokoun ($2 million) on the long-term injury list, but they can save an additional $7.25 million by designating Dupuis and Letang.
All cap space hits are prorated at this point in the season, and teams can exceed the cap during the playoffs.