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Penguins Decisions & Consequences: What If…?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang

Two heavy decisions and a cascading line of actions, reactions, and consequences await. As Kasperi Kapanen recently chuckled, the Pittsburgh Penguins have more significant decisions (than him), as new contracts for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang headline GM Ron Hextall’s to-do list.

Computer programmers used an “if, then, else” process to code, and it’s a sound logic sequence, too.

Often, we are asked questions like, “why don’t the Penguins…” or “They should…”

And often, my reply comes in the form of follow-up. If the Penguins don’t sign Kris Letang, their options are not so great to replace him. Suppose the Penguins do (x) then (y). Context and consequence are everything.

Pittsburgh Penguins, If, Then, Else:

IF: The Penguins sign Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang?

THEN: Hextall will most likely have spent about $16 million or more of the Penguins’ $23 million salary-cap space, leaving $7 million and some pennies to sign Rickard Rakell, Evan Rodrigues, Kasperi Kapanen or replacement, Danton Heinen or replacement, a fourth-liner to side-saddle Teddy Blueger, and a backup goalie.

Else: With only $7 million, the Penguins can’t ice a legit team without a trade. Saying goodbye to a prospect packaged with a salary is the likeliest Penguins trade possibility because Hextall won’t give up his first-round pick and doesn’t possess a second or third. The other likely trade piece is Marcus Pettersson.

Every dollar above $16 million for the pair makes assembling the rest of the team more difficult. Every dollar less helps…

IF: The Penguins do not re-sign Evgeni Malkin?

Then: It’s hard to imagine a Penguins trade in this spot. They don’t have the prospects, picks, or pieces to spare for such a deal.

So, we look to the UFA market of potential scoring line centers. There are some to watch, but the competition will be fierce. There are three bonafide scoring line centers and maybe up to seven, including Malkin, who could hit the market.

Unfortunately, Malkin far and away had the best offensive goals-per-game stats (.5). However, Nazem Kadri had a whopping 87 points (28-59-87). There’s a steep drop to Vincent Trocheck, who had 51 points in 81 games. Ryan Strome had 54 points in 74 games, but it is hard to see the New York Rangers letting him walk. The same goes for Patrice Bergeron and the Boston Bruins.

If one player could pick up the phone and get Bergeron to leave Boston, maybe it would be former Team Canada teammate Sidney Crosby? Two summers ago, Zdeno Chara was never leaving the Bruins but signed with Washington.

Paul Statsny, 36, and Andrew Copp, 27, are the others on the market. Statsny had a rebound year with the Winnipeg Jets. He scored 45 points (21-24-45) in 71 games after just 29 points in 55 games during the COVID-shortened season.

Copp came alive with the Rangers and had a great series against the Penguins. He can also kill penalties. He was a constant shorthanded threat against the Penguins. However, being a second-line center might be a stretch for both.

Else: There should be extra money for UFA “wants” like Evan Rodrigues or a middle-six scoring winger. If winning now is still the goal, Hextall will have to overpay for Kadri if he hits the market or Trocheck. Both could hit the $7 million AAV mark. Neither will be team-friendly deals, but that will be the price of losing Malkin.

IF: The Penguins do not re-sign Kris Letang

Then: Uh oh. System error.

The drop-off in available RHD from Kris Letang to John Klingberg is slight, but Klingberg will sign a massive contract this summer, probably well beyond the Penguins’ pain tolerance. After that, the drop-off is a cliff.

Jeff Petry, Colin Miller, and Josh Manson would be the next available tier, either through free agency or trade. Neither Miller nor Manson nor the crop of potentials are top-pairing defensemen, but the Penguins will have to make do in some way.

Else: “Then” is the failsafe option here. Otherwise, Hextall may have to replace the motherboard with a flurry of moves to improve the Penguins.

IF: The Penguins do not re-sign Kasperi Kapanen

Then: The Penguins’ salary cap structure will have a few million dollars to find a potential 20-goal scorer. There are not many “middle-class” right-wingers who can score goals. Ilya Mikheyev is out there and should land in that price range. He popped 20 goals for Toronto this season.

Perhaps that money gets them closer to Nino Niederreiter.

Hey, Dominik Simon is also out there.

Also, the Kapanen’s QO is less than $1 million, so Hextall can maintain Kapanen’s rights without serious effort to re-sign him. Perhaps Kapanen’s rights also have some trade value. The player who commanded a mid-first round pick just two offseasons ago had a terrible year after posting 30 points in 40 games during his first Penguins season.

Else: If the Penguins decide for a parting of the ways, can they recoup a third-rounder? Perhaps a backup goalie?

IF: The Pittsburgh Penguins do not re-sign Casey DeSmith

Then: The search for a backup begins in earnest. There are few low-cost backup goalies set to hit the free-agent market. Perhaps Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen will become a bargain option. Perhaps Mike Smith wants a backup role if he doesn’t retire, but the pickin’s are slim. As colleague Dave Molinari noted, (Penguins backup goalie options)the list included also-rans Martin Jones, David Rittich, and Malcolm Subban.

Else: Pray that Tristan Jarry stays healthy. Or Marc-Andre Fleury declares he wants to eschew a few million more dollars and end his career as a low-paid backup just to hang out with Sidney Crosby.