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Elephant in the Room: This Looks Like the Last Ride for Penguins Core

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

The writing is on the wall. Maybe we’ve brushed past it because the thought is almost as inconceivable as seeing Mario Lemieux in a different uniform, but with every passing day, every passing news report, the coming conclusion becomes more inescapable. This season is the last ride for the Pittsburgh Penguins championship core.

Since they were figuratively kids, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have been together. As padawans, they shocked the veteran-heavy Detroit Red Wings on home ice in Game 7 to win the 2009 Stanley Cup. Their history is as long as it is rich. Not since the dynasty days of the Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, and New York Islanders has a championship core stayed together this long, and none had a second act like the Penguins did in 2016 and 2017.

But all things have an end.

One, if not two, of the Penguins core could be in their last season with the team. Malkin and Letang do not have contracts for next season, and contract talks this summer either went nowhere or didn’t happen.

Down deep, we all just assumed those contracts would happen, right?

The latest report from Pierre LeBrun on TSN last week was the first public shot across the bow of the trio, who probably thought the matter was settled and they would be able to finish their careers in Pittsburgh. LeBrun reported the Penguins were open to a short-term contract with Letang, but Letang wanted more. Further, the report included a little poke at Letang, whom the Penguins source said thought he could play “forever.”

“For Ron Hextall, He has a ‘Plan A’ and and ‘Plan B.’ I think Plan A is let’s stay competitive. Sidney Crosby is not here to rebuild, and let’s try to find a way to re-sign Malkin and Letang. Plan B is more of a rebuild. I think they’re playing well enough so far this year to convince Ron Hextall perhaps [to go with] Plan A,” LeBrun said on TSN. “I think the Penguins will be comfortable in a shorter term extension with Kris Letang and not so much a long term extension. And I think Kris Letang feels like he can play forever.”

Ouch.

That dovetails with our initial analysis this summer that the Penguins core players would decide the future in a “show me” year. The positive spin is that Letang’s camp and the team talked.

The more realistic reading from the news isn’t good for those who want to see the three ride off into the sunset together. On the first level, the talks obviously didn’t go well. Second, the first news leak on the matter seemed to include a little dig. Lastly, it seems to indicate the Penguins are open to keeping all Malkin and Letang but only on favorable team terms.

How badly do they want to remain with the Penguins?

Sidney Crosby is signed for three more seasons through 2025. He will be 38-years-old when it expires.

Pittsburgh Penguins Immediate Future

The Penguins also got nowhere during preliminary contract talks with Bryan Rust. The organization could see a windfall of about $22.5 million next summer. Should Letang, Malkin, and Rust walk, there will be a polarizing shock, gnashing of the teeth, and praise.

Given the salary cap crunch that has engulfed most teams, an extra $22.5 million would allow a newer GM, President of Hockey Operations, and ownership group to add new talent. Those players will not be in league with Letang or Malkin, but not many are. The prospect of reshaping the team in an image of their choosing is tantalizing for every front office.

The rumors of past trades nixed at high levels have floated around since the Ray Shero days, but the Penguins held true to their core. It appears the Fenway Group ownership will leave Mario Lemieux “to guide hockey operations,” as the press release stated, but will the winds of change and presented opportunity be the time to say goodbye to this generation of Penguins stars?

It sure seems like it.

Otherwise, contract talks would have been serious last summer. Or at least more serious than they reportedly were and more serious than we’ve been told occurred.

Next summer, Tomas Hertl, Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Strome, and Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck will be unrestricted free agents. None are older than 28 and would quickly add star power to the Penguins for five more years.

Zach Aston-Reese and Danton Heinen are also free agents. Heinen may get a raise, but Aston-Reese will probably stay in that $2 million range, and the depth pieces are just that.

After this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins salary cap structure will have about $34 million to spend on free agents. After replacing or re-signing those depth pieces, the total will be about $24 million to sign or replace middle-six centers Evgeni Malkin and Jeff Carter, 20-goal winger Bryan Rust, top defenseman Kris Letang, and re-up RFA Kasperi Kapanen.

Letang will be the most difficult to replace. The only other pending UFA with a right shot and first pair chops is Dallas Stars d-man John Klingberg. The remaining UFA crop is second or third pairing, at best. Perhaps that is why the crack about Letang “thinks he can play forever.”

Hextall and Brian Burke must know he’s the only option. The ONLY option.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a shrewd organization with a keen sense of pleasing its fans. The salve to saying goodbye to loyal, championship players who will undoubtedly have a bad taste in their mouth will be to immediately sign big-name free agents whose birthdays postdate Nirvana and Michael Keaton’s Batman. Get fans excited in the free-agent chase for big names, and they will quickly move on.

Having $28 million to spend, Sidney Crosby in the middle, Jake Guentzel alongside, a goalie stopping everything, and good bones deeper in the lineup is a recipe to rebuild on the fly. Perhaps the Penguins can hardball Letang into an agreeable deal, too.

As Evgeni Malkin works to come back from serious knee surgery, as Letang looks for a new contract with another season well above board, all signs point to the end. No one wants the public backlash or distraction of talking about it. Maybe some are holding out hope that everything works out and everyone gets to ride off into the sunset together.

But as Marc-Andre Fleury, the fourth member of the championship core, has proven, the end of the career is rarely a storybook in the salary cap world. Teams can afford an $8 million mistake more than they can afford sentiment.

The writing is on the wall. The way the Pittsburgh Penguins have played, they’re again building hope. If Tristan Jarry can stop pucks at this rate, the Penguins will not only make the playoffs easily, they could have a run.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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GBG
GBG
7 months ago

The story is long on Letang, who should be re-signed, and short on Malkin, who should not. A healthy Malkin would make for a great rental-player trade to go get one of those players mentioned in this article, also on a rental deal. If the Pens really want to make a push that seems clear.

Gbg
Gbg
7 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Is that concerning or normal? It seems maybe with a sale on the horizon the old ownership group has let contract extension talks lapse

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
7 months ago

I’m glad my youth was spent in an era when the superstars stayed with a team until they retired.

Ethan
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Fisher

Wow you must be really old! Just kidding I grew up with Mean Joe, Lemieux and the like too. The first thing I thought when I heard Letang say he was gonna play til 45–was that he must have just bristled at a short-term contract extension offer. Subtle or not, so begins the public phase of negotiations–I just hope when Letang hangs up his skates–he has been thru some things–that he is healthy and skates off under a golden black sunset. My lady thinks he’s easy on the eyes as well–so might not need to venture that far north for… Read more »

George Edelblute
George Edelblute
7 months ago
Reply to  Ethan

While not really old, I AM 66. I remember playing home run derby in my cousin’s yard and the Pirates lineup never changed, the Steelers always won (and would have won 3 SBs in a row if not for injuries to Franco & Rocky in the playoffs) and the Pens were er well… Somewhat competitive. Although my baby sister and I were born and raised in the Philly suburb, my father mother and 3 older siblings were Yinzers so we all bleed Black & Gold… Still do

Ethan
7 months ago

Mom was also from Philly but dad from the Burgh! Needless to say the black and gold won out! My WPA childhood memory is early/mid 80’s Steelers so pretty tough–Sure they won 4 by the time I was 5 but only video’s stuck in the brain of the glory years! Have a good friend from Philly and sometimes I feel for him and his lack of cups–then the Flyers play the Guins and my pity is replaced with animus. I hope at 66 you are still knocking ’em deep!

David
David
7 months ago

The cold blooded facts are that Malkin has been so often injured that the Pens won’t miss him — and when he has played he has not been the same. That being said, I hope they sign both Malkin and Letang — Letang surely has some great years left.

jackw
jackw
7 months ago

Next summer, Tomas Hertl, Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Strome, and Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck will be unrestricted free agents. 

It’s laughable to think that any one of those guys could replace Malkin. The same thing goes for any available player you’re thinking about to replace Letang.

But this fan base is one that has been throwing around “trade Malkin at the deadline” while gnashing their teeth in agony over losing Tanev in the draft – so not surprising.

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
7 months ago
Reply to  jackw

Agree Jack, in order to bring the next superstar here. Have to be fortunate in the draft or make a big deal. That deal could come from moving some of these FAs this year down the road with getting picks.

Bob
Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  jackw

What has Malkin really done the past 3 years except miss games. At least these players mentioned would be in the line-up more than not and the team would get their moneys worth as well as the fans.

Frank
Frank
7 months ago

With so much swirling around the league and Penguins I would not put too much into what is going to happen to the team in July when it is still December. The most significant aspect of this is that there is absolutely NO doubt in my mind that the sale of the team has been perking for at least 6 months if no longer. As a result serious contract discussions had to be frozen for the most part as no one really knew if the sale would happen, what the attitude of new ownership would be, who might or might… Read more »

Keith Thomas
Keith Thomas
7 months ago

A certain “Heavy” radio personality in the city has been advocating (he thinks he is Letang’s advance Agent) that the Penguins should re-sign Letang at 8.5M for FOUR years. That sounds absurdly rich to me but that is what he says. I think you are pretty much right here Dan that it is difficult to forecast what will happen. I think with the Cap Space that OTT has they would be willing to over-pay for Letang in a huge way that they Pens afford. What the Front Office needs to know is are they going to sign or not prior… Read more »

Rich Filardi
Rich Filardi
7 months ago

Good Stuff Dan, is a run successful if it doesnt end with a championship? Its a tough business, but I honestly feel-the Pens could win a series provided they play well, but would be shocked beyond that, which match ups dictate that too. I would move who they cannot resign or prefer not to keep at the deadline. The odds of winning the cup are small and covid going will make a sure thing even less than one. Not a fan of going out in a blaze of glory-great for memories but good for business? To me that FA pool… Read more »

Last edited 7 months ago by Rich Filardi
Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
7 months ago

Yo time marches on. I believe it is time for Malkin, Letang, and Rust to move on. With that cap space maybe we can bring in some star players that are not always hurt. New ownership and some new players lets go Pens.

DaGama
DaGama
7 months ago

Sully is a solid HC and his team approach is the way to go. Instead of being too top heavy more signings like Brock McGinn will return us to the promised land.

Donald Walters
Donald Walters
7 months ago

It seems speculative at this point to make the assumption that Malkin and Letang will be gone. It’s obvious the penguins want to see what they have before they commit to plan a, plan b or plan Z. I know writers like to generate interest by throwing attention-grabbing stories out there but I’m not convinced this is anything more than that. I would like to see both players signed for contracts that pay them what they are worth NOW, at this point in their careers. That doesn’t seem to happen much in sports though.

Fredrick
Fredrick
7 months ago

I think you try to keep Malkin and Letang. I believe if Hextall thinks he can’t resign one or both of them, then I think you have to try and trade them for prospects and picks. Then try and sign a few free agents to help the team right away.

Billy boy
Billy boy
7 months ago

This idea is crazy, Kris Letang is irreplaceable and has been for a long time. Give him an extra year for lower AAV. Another 4 years at $7m sounds rich but without him, the Pens flounder. Without Geno, they seem to be fine. Re-sign Carter for sure. If they can pull in one stud UFA forward, that seems enough for the next 3 years.

Lars Nelson
Lars Nelson
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy boy

I would sign Letang in a heartbeat for 4 by 7. He is awesome and will be for years. He loves the game and is in great shape.

Steve
Steve
7 months ago

But…Keaton’s back as Batman. So, what’s old is new again. Why not with Pens? In all seriousness, I think the Pens probably have to sign Letang. Malkin will be a harder conversation, which is kind of in his hands. Come back from injury and take this team up a level, and he makes letting him go very hard. As an athlete, that should be a challenge he relishes.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
7 months ago

I’d like to keep Letang for 3-4 more seasons. Not sure how Malkin could ask for more AAV than Sid has remaining? I mean, how does _that_ conversation go… without stopping moments later.

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
7 months ago

Hmmmmm. First of all Dan, no I did not just assume new contracts would happen. Second, Letang is the “only option”? Hmmmm. So, God Forbid, 58 gets hit by a bus tomorrow the franchise would just fold? I don’t think so. Many of us have been saying since last summer that this is a “show me” year. If they can win a series or two in the playoffs then 71 and 58 might deserve new deals. If they miss the playoffs or get rolled in the first round again then it is time to spend those millions elsewhere. I like… Read more »

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
7 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

John Marino. Realistic? Of course. Who do you think would play there if 58 cant go?

Shibster
Shibster
7 months ago

I know I’ll get hate for this… Letang and especially Malkin should have been ousted from the team years ago. And who would the pens have gotten to replace them? Heck if I know, I’m not a GM( and neither are you). Of course between the two I believe Letang has earned his long time as a penguin, but parting ways is long overdue. Malkin on the other hand… I think the last he really showed up was when he personally demolished the Canes in the 2009 playoffs. Dude has been lazy ever since.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right.

Steve M
Steve M
7 months ago
Reply to  Shibster

Here’s the 20/20 hindsight:

Geno has failed to live up the the $9.5M cap hit he’s occupied over the last 7 1/2 years, that’s fair to say. But Letang has provided outstanding surplus value at $7.25M over the same period.

End of story.

Steve M
Steve M
7 months ago

It makes sense for both sides to extend Letang for 3 years at his current cap hit of $7.25M. If I’m Hexy, depending on the outcome with Geno, Rust, Kappy et al., I would consider first going as high as $8M for the 3 year term, or alternatively adding a 4th year at $7.25M. Given Letang’s current level of play it’s reasonable to expect the player to not budge much further as he could clearly do better on the open market so this constitutes a sacrifice on his part. However, that’s the precedent Sidney set many, many years ago, to… Read more »

Steve M
Steve M
7 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Understood and agreed Dan; I’m just saying that Sidney’s played his entire career at an $8.7M cap hit, the team reinvests that discount to stay competitive and spends to the cap, and that just the way it needs to be. I agree the market’s thin, I agree Letang can make more and is worth more in a vacuum, I’m simply stating that if I’m Hexy I’ll go as far as either $8M x 3 or $7.25M x 4. If that doesn’t work it doesn’t work. I love Letang, I think he deserved to win both the Norris and the Conn… Read more »

Lars Nelson
Lars Nelson
7 months ago

How much is Malkin worth on the open market? To me, he is worth 7 and I would sign him for 4 or 5 years at that price, which could keep him here by stretching out the years. I am sure that another team would pay him more to have a 2C for a cup run. If we can free up money then we can have a legitimate shot at the cup. We could sign Rust and have a very competitive and balanced team. Everyone is forgetting that slotting Carter in the 3C with great wingers around him is the… Read more »

Steve M
Steve M
7 months ago
Reply to  Lars Nelson

With Geno coming back from injury there’s virtually no chance he signs an extension. He’s got to play out the season to establish his value.

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