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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?

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Sven
Sven
12 days ago

Maybe it isn‘t best, maybe it is? Has it ever been done before? I think it is glorious, 3 guys staying with one team their entire career, winning silverware left and right.. We as fans took the great years, why not ride with them through transition?

TartanBIll
TartanBIll
12 days ago

why is it so important that they stay together”
Perhaps they are a “band of brothers” as in Harry’s St. Crispin’s day Speech. That can be overwhelmingly motivating.

Robbie53
Robbie53
12 days ago

Not advocating, just raising the question. Right?

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
12 days ago

I see nothing wrong with players wanting to stay together. They all play for less then market value as well, so its not like the gm has no cap space left to fill the roster with plenty of good players. Just so happens that it hasn’t worked out yet.

Brian X
Brian X
11 days ago

Staying together is fine, but one of them needs to realize he is no longer elite and accept a lesser role on a lower line. Look to Bryan Trottier for inspiration.

Matthew Caddy
Matthew Caddy
11 days ago

Is it best? Of course not. But in order to keep Sid happy and make sure he finishes his career here they had to appease him. In a perfect world the team would have moved on from both 71 and 58 back in 2022 and got younger with guys like Trocheck. So, if Sid never wins another Cup he only has himself to blame.

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
11 days ago
Reply to  Matthew Caddy

People assume that Trocheck wanted to sign here. Not sure where that came from. Never saw anything where he said that he wanted to play for Pittsburgh but couldn’t sign here. I feel like the Penguins would have signed him if that were the case.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
11 days ago

Did they even try before “Don’t they want me?” or whatever it was he reportedly said? I’ve no doubt 71 wasn’t going anywhere but I still thought it was the prudent move to have moved on. Perhaps not this past season but in seasons 2, 3 and 4 of his deal. Now, whenever he leaves, the team eats the salary… and for all the howling about the money we eat for JJ… ugh, just wait. Of course, I didn’t know if we could have signed Nino either but I felt he would have been a better fit than 42 (dodged… Read more »

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
11 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Young

There were seemingly bad decisions made along the way for sure. My point is that just because someone was a FA, it didn’t mean the penguins could have signed that person. Players and agents mostly decide that. Maybe the GM could have evaluated what the team needed more and threw more money at player x or player y, but i prefer not to live in the shoulda-coulda realm. Reality is a nice place for me, personally

Robert Shoemaker
Robert Shoemaker
11 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Young

Geno will finish his contract so long as he is healthy. He is eligible for ltir if he has a career ending injury in the next couple of seasons. He will also take a lesser role if Dubas finds an adequate 2c. Right now, there is no player on the roster or in the minors to challenge him for that spot.