There will be a lot of NHL teams worth paying close attention to this off-season, but none may be more intriguing than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now under new ownership, the Pens are looking at satisfying two of the biggest players on the unrestricted free agent market – star center Evgeni Malkin and star defenseman Kris Letang – and there’s no assurance they’ll be able to retain either, or both cornerstone components.
Well, technically, they do have the salary cap space to keep Letang and Malkin – as per the indispensable CapFriendly.com, Pittsburgh is projected to currently have $23.2 million in cap space – but if they were able to persuade both stars to take no raise on their 2021-22 salaries (Malkin made $9.5 million this past season, while Letang had a cap hit of $7.25-million), they’d only have approximately $7.5 million left, with only 18 players signed for 2022-23, and restricted free agents in forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen, and upper-tier UFA forwards Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues.
If Penguins GM Ron Hextall wants to address his goaltending depth – by, say, bringing veteran Marc-Andre Fleury back to Pittsburgh for one final run in his Hockey Hall of Fame career – he can’t bring back both Malkin and Letang. And if he does have to choose between the two, it says here Hextall should keep Letang and allow Malkin to depart for greener pastures.
This is not a slight on Malkin, who can still be dominant for stretches of play. But the big Russian will be 36 years old in July, and he hasn’t been able to play for 70 or more games in a single season since the 2017-18 campaign. Malkin was still a point-per-game player this past season, but he appeared in only 41 games, and had 42 points. How much contract term do you give to a player like that?
In a capless NHL, of course, the Penguins should and would sign him to a two-or-three-year deal, but if you have to choose, wouldn’t you pick Letang, who led all Pittsburgh players in time-on-ice (averaging 25:46 of ice time per game) and was by far the Pens’ best offense-producing blueliner, with a career-best 58 assists and 68 points in 78 games)? Yes, he’s the same age as Malkin right now, but Malkin’s offense can be replaced by forwards Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, and Jeff Carter. There is nobody who can replace what Letang gives Pittsburgh.
Making the playoffs is not going to be a certainty for Pittsburgh this coming year. In the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division, teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils will be nipping at the Penguins’ heels, and the Washington Capitals, who finished only three points behind Pittsburgh last season, will also be battling to make the most of their closing competitive window. It’s going to be a tough fight for the Pens to play as well as they did this year, let alone improve on it.
And that’s the biggest question to consider when debating whether to retain Malkin and/or Letang: can the Penguins, as presently constructed, make it out of the first round of the playoffs? They nearly knocked off their Metro rivals in Manhattan in Round One this year, but ultimately blew the series lead and lost in seven games. The Rangers figure to be equally dangerous in 2022-23, and so does reigning Metro champion, Carolina, so there’s very little room for error in Pittsburgh.
And if they’re just going to spin their wheels, is it really worth paying big money to a pair of veterans when that money could go toward relative youngsters like Rakell and Rodriguez? If you’re investing in the future, you don’t do that by ponying up more than $16 million in cap space to two guys who are on the downside of their thirties. At this stage, having a solid goaltending duo of Tristan Jarry and a proven winner like Fleury is more important to their present and immediate future.
Hextall is on record as saying he wants to keep both Malkin and Letang, but that’s likely to be much easier said than done. If, say, the Montreal Canadiens come to the table with a three-year, $24-or-$25-million deal for Letang, the choice becomes starker: either Malkin or Fleury sign at a notable discount or one of the three won’t be Penguins next year.
That’s going to feel like a bad thing for Pens fans, but sometimes, you need a situation like this to help separate the emotions of past Stanley Cup-winning seasons from the cold reality of the cap and Father Time..Watching Malkin wear another uniform would be alien to the hockey world, yet he’d hardly be the only veteran seeking out one more notable payday before retiring. Two or three years from now, if Malkin finds himself injured again, the Penguins may be relieved they didn’t spend tons of money and notable term on him.
It’s hard to let go of the past, especially a past that’s given so much to Penguins fans. But hanging on to a depreciating asset like Malkin, just for the sake of having him back, doesn’t make much sense. Bring back Letang, absolutely – but use this crossroads of an off-season to make a clean break from Malkin, and try to remain competitive for the long term.