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



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.”


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.