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Kingerski: Why Does Penguins Core Want to Stay Together?

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ core three have won Stanley Cups and overcome career-threatening and even life-threatening injuries. They’ve seen the championship peak three times and recently felt the desolation of missing the playoffs. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have sworn the hockey equivalent of a blood oath to ride or die together.

But why?

They are the longest-serving teammates in North American sports, and only Malkin has received a paycheck to play elsewhere. Who could ever forget his rationale for forcing Crosby to go next-to-last out of the tunnel on game nights: “Three years, Super League.”

It’s been more than 18 years since Malkin escaped the Russian league via a daring clandestine escape at the Helsinki airport.

Any debts of loyalty from either side have long been repaid.

Working together for nearly two decades is quite a feat. The core players have an enormous history and bonds like forged steel. They’ve sacrificed more money elsewhere, intending to remain in the same sweater for their entire careers.

Yet those bonds even carry beyond being teammates.

Marc-Andre Fleury, a former member of the core until the Penguins traded him to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of the VGK 2017 expansion draft, held a seat for Crosby on the Vegas team plane.

A gesture that was returned.

The current three fought hard to stay together when Malkin’s and Letang’s contracts were up in 2022, and they were headed for free agency. Eventually, emotion won out, and Letang signed a six-year deal a few weeks before free agency. Malkin didn’t sign his four-year deal until the eve of the July 1 frenzy, and even then, multiple outlets, including Pittsburgh Hockey Now, were tipped off by sources that Malkin would test the free-agent waters.

Again, why is it so important that they stay together?

Eventually, the memory of wearing a different jersey fades. Even the recently roasted Tom Brady wore another jersey, but he will always be a New England Patriot.

This is not the part where the writer rhetorically answers his own question but instead questions the foundation of the situation.

Do fans think less of Jaromir Jagr? Yes, they petulantly booed Jagr for several years, and it was always ridiculous, but all’s well that ends well. Jagr is again a Pittsburgh hero, and his number hangs in the rafters.

Fans think infinitely more highly of Fleury since he left than when he was in Pittsburgh. Let’s not gloss over the vociferous section of the flightless bird patrons who vilified Fleury as everything but the shooter on the grassy knoll. Since leaving, Fleury won the Vezina Trophy, went to the Stanley Cup Final, and became a beloved hero in Las Vegas.

And he became a nearly canonized figure in Pittsburgh, but not until he left.

The average American changes jobs five to seven times in their lifetime. You don’t hear many of us lament not finishing our career in one spot. Why do we expect different of athletes?

Bill Guerin was immensely popular in Pittsburgh after the 2009 trade that brought him here. He played in eight cities over his 18-year career yet remains a Penguins fan favorite despite less than 1.5 seasons with the Penguins.

The core three’s loyalty to each other and the organization is incredibly admirable. But is loyalty, for loyalty’s sake, a good reason to stay together?

Professional sports isn’t a charity. Like every other business, it’s about winning and profit. What is accomplished when loyalty is detrimental to both sides and neither side is maximized by the relationship?

To be clear, there’s less than zero indication that Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas would ask the core, or that any of the core would march up the office stairs to ask him, to move on. But maybe two of three should be open to it.

Crosby is the organization’s standard bearer. Like one of his heroes, Steve Yzerman, who remained in Detroit for the entirety of his 22-year career, it will be his job to shepherd the next generation and set the tone for young careers just beginning to bloom.

However, perhaps Letang would find revered status with another team and fanbase if he could lead them to a championship run or a swift turnaround as a veteran leader. Such a move certainly wouldn’t diminish his Hall of Fame career and elite play with the Penguins.

Actually, such a move would burnish his Hall credentials. He’s never truly received the proper recognition from Pittsburgh or the hockey world. Just one Norris Trophy nomination, despite several worthy campaigns, speaks to that.

It’s probably too late for Malkin, who, at 38 years old, is slowing down and has two more years left on his ironclad 35+ contract. But who could blame him if he asked to finish his career closer to his wife (and family)? That’s the very same reason Wayne Gretzky gave when he rocked the hockey world by asking out of Edmonton.

Is Gretzky less revered in Edmonton? Nope. The statues and genuflections to the Great One remain.

No, this column is not advocating trading Malkin or Letang but asserting that staying merely for the sake of loyalty or relying on a comfortable status quo in a business that otherwise reviles both doesn’t serve either side.

The question should be: Is this best?