CHICAGO — The Penguins know which player they want to acquire before the NHL trade deadline Wednesday.
Vancouver center Ryan Kesler is being pursued aggressively by Penguins general manager Ray Shero, multiple sources told the Tribune-Review on Saturday.
A proposed deal would send Kesler to the Penguins in exchange for center Brandon Sutter, two 2014 draft picks — likely a first- and third-round — and the Canucks’ choice of defensemen Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin, the sources said.
It is possible the deal could involve another Canucks and Penguins player, but Shero was looking only to acquire Kesler, the sources said.
The trade deadline is 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Shero has made at least one move in the month advancing or at the deadline in six of seven previous seasons. Last season he acquired wingers Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murray before the trade deadline.
Only Jokinen remains. Shero would prefer not to add players on expiring contracts before this year’s deadline, the sources said.
Shero first inquired with Vancouver about Kesler in January prior to defenseman Kris Letang’s stroke, the sources said. The Canucks since have heavily scouted Despres, a 2009 first-round pick, the sources said.
Though Kesler could play as the top-line right winger this season, the Penguins’ long-term interest in him is because they seek a return to the big-three center format that helped them reach the 2008 Stanley Cup Final and win the Cup in 2009, the sources said.
Then, the Penguins won seven of eight playoff series, in part, by deploying a third line centered by Jordan Staal against the opposition’s top offensive players. Staal also scored pivotal goals in victorious Games 4 and 6 of the 2009 Cup Final.
Staal was traded at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft for a package that included Sutter, Dumoulin and Carolina’s first-round pick, which the Penguins used on defenseman Derrick Pouliot.
The Penguins used their original first-round pick on defenseman Olli Maatta, who has emerged as top rookie candidate this season.
Despite Maatta’s progress, the Penguins do not view Pouliot as expendable, the sources said. Also, the Penguins are hesitant to trade defenseman Scott Harrington, their second-round pick in 2011, the sources said.
The Penguins would try to acquire Kesler in the offseason if he stays with Vancouver past the deadline, the sources said. However, the Penguins want to get Kesler now so they can have him for three postseason runs.
The Penguins view the Eastern Conference to be at its weakest since 2008 and believe Kesler could be the missing piece for a return to the Cup Final. Specifically, the Penguins believe he would help against the Boston Bruins, the sources said.
Boston swept the Penguins from the Eastern Conference final last season.
Kesler, 29, is first among NHL forwards in average ice time (22 minutes and 12 seconds), and he averages 2:05 short-handed.
Shero and coach Dan Bylsma took a long look at Kesler during the Winter Olympics. He played for Team USA, which was coached by Bylsma.
In a semifinal loss to Canada, Bylsma used Kesler against Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a point in that game.
Kesler, who finished the Olympics playing with a broken hand, impressed Bylsma with his snarly on-ice disposition — and Shero had sought to infuse the Penguins with a shot of nastiness coming into this season, the sources said.
Shero also wants to upgrade the Penguins’ scoring depth. Five first- or second-line forwards had combined to score 111 of the Penguins’ 187 goals — or 59.4 percent.
Kesler has scored 21 goals and produced 39 points in 61 games for the Canucks, who are looking to rebuild after failing to win a playoff series since losing a home Game 7 of the 2011 Cup Final.
Kesler has a no-trade clause, but the Penguins are atop his list of preferred destinations because he wants to play for a Cup contender and grew to respect Bylsma, assistant coach Tony Granato and Shero during the Olympics, the sources said.
Kesler, who has publicly denied his reported request for a trade, wants next to play for a U.S.-based team in the Eastern time zone — though he is intrigued by possibly joining Chicago, which has emerged as the Penguins’ challenger for his services, the sources said.
Aside from the Penguins and Blackhawks, Kesler also would accept trades to Philadelphia and Detroit, the sources said.
The Penguins can afford to fit Kesler’s $5 million average annual salary under the $64.3 million salary cap. They will have extra room because Letang ($3.5 million) and right winger Pascal Dupuis ($3.75 million) could come off their cap by being placed on the long-term injury list.
Dupuis (ACL surgery) is out for the season. Letang will be re-evaluated in three weeks, but he is not projected to play again until next season.