NHL free agency opens this Sunday afternoon, and the Penguins will be active in one way or another.
(In the case of Jack Johnson, many wish they’d be a little less active, but I digress.)
What they won’t be looking for, though, is a franchise-changing player. The same can’t be said for all the teams involved in the hunt for John Tavares, or any other similar summer NHL sweepstakes that’s taken place over the past decade and a half.
Many have said the Penguins hit the lottery when they were able to draft Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in back-to-back years. In the case of Crosby, the Penguins literally hit the lotto, but the procurement of two transcendent talents to reboot the franchise was only the first part of an extended championship window that remains open in A.D. 2018.
The second part, almost just as necessary, occurred when both superstars decided to take less money per year than they could’ve rightfully demanded at the time. Crosby accepted a 12-year contract in 2013 that pays him an average of $8.7 million per year, while Malkin agreed to an eight-year deal worth $9.5 million per about a year later.
Sounds like a lot in normal terms, but both contracts feature average annual values that accounted for about 15 percent of the league’s salary cap maximum when they were signed. Player contracts are permitted to go as high as 20 percent of the cap, so Crosby and Malkin left a few million per year on the table when they re-upped.
Those decisions have set the Penguins up to add salaries like Phil Kessel‘s without much giveback, to carry two No. 1 goalies for a full season, to generally dance around the perimeter of a free-agent market that is typically fraught with risk. In fact, until last week’s trade of Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick to the Sabres, the Penguins haven’t needed to pull off a deal that was purely a salary dump.
Forget the outstanding value Crosby and Malkin have provided to the Penguins. Sure, general managers Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford have been up against the salary cap yearly, but they have had the freedom to build teams as they see fit, without as much worry as they by all rights should’ve had to contend with.
Indeed, possessing two of the top players in the game at once can grow into a burden eventually. Stan Bowman in Chicago secured the talents of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews through their primes, but those $10.5 million price tags have taken a bite out of the Blackhawks recently, to say nothing of Toews’ quick offensive decline.
At times, the extra cap space hasn’t worked out for the Penguins. The second coming of Rob Scuderi comes to mind, a contract that might be replicated soon with Johnson apparently packing for Pittsburgh. Perhaps Sheary was paid too much too soon, while Olli Määttä and Brian Dumoulin must stay on track to make their deals look good.
But overall, Crosby and Malkin gave this organization incredible gifts when they settled for less. In some ways, they did what was best for them, because they gave their team a better chance to build legitimate Cup contenders year after year. I’m certain that thought crossed their minds when they put pen to paper.
So as the madness unfolds and teams try to convince themselves that average players are worth paying a premium for, Penguins fans should smile and realize that while the start of free agency hasn’t been the most exciting time to follow the franchise in recent years, that’s probably a good thing.