It’s not news to the Pittsburgh Penguins — or any other NHL club — that the business of hockey can be as brutal as anything that happens on the ice.
Oh, there aren’t ligaments shredded or bones broken during contract negotiations, but there can be plenty of hurt feelings and bruised egos.
That’s because players and their agents tend to have a firm sense of what the player is worth, while the front-office representative with whom they are negotiating is charged with working out a deal at the lowest possible cost.
Not necessarily because the team official gets any satisfaction out of low-balling an employee, but because every dollar saved on one player is a dollar that can be invested in another.
Collect enough of those dollars, and a club just might be able to retain — or add — a guy who could be a difference-maker in a bid to qualify for the playoffs or win a Stanley Cup.
It is against such a backdrop that the Penguins are trying to work out contracts with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin that would allow those two to finish their pro careers where they began, a rarity in today’s NHL.
While the sides haggle over money and length of the deal, there is at least one thing on which all concerned can agree: The profound and positive impact both players have had on the franchise.
Malkin joins Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr as the top four players in Pittsburgh Penguins history; Letang ranks the club’s finest all-time defensemen, and is the best who — unlike Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy — did not spend significant time elsewhere.
Malkin and Letang have six Stanley Cup rings between them, and both have created some breathtaking memories. What they have accomplished in the past cannot be disputed.
It also cannot be a significant factor in the negotiations that are in progress.
The hard truth is, contracts have to be based on what a player is expected to contribute over the life of that deal. They are not lifetime-achievement awards or a thank-you for services rendered in the past.
There is no room for sentimentality in a league with a hard salary cap. If a team wants to honor a player for his previous contributions to the franchise, it should do it with a banner or a statue, not a contract.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins are intent on keeping Letang and Malkin, they should do it because they believe both can do more to help them contend for a Stanley Cup, on a return-on-investment basis, than anyone who could be acquired to replace them.
Letang has emerged as the Penguins’ priority target, presumably because there aren’t many right-handed shots qualified to play on a No. 1 pairing available on the market these days.
Few guys out there can match Malkin’s body of work, either — he’ll be delivering a Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech one of these years — but he missed half of last season because of major knee surgery and put up just 22 even-strength points in 41 games after returning.
Also, he’ll turn 36 July 31, so it’s fair to question how long he’ll be able to perform at produce near the level he’s reached in the past.
Now, the Penguins’ contract proposals shouldn’t be based solely on statistics — be it points or ice time or something devised by the Analytics Dept. — because intangibles are part of the formula for a winning team, too. It can’t be overlooked that Letang and Malkin serve as alternate captains, at least in part because of their leadership.
Why the Pittsburgh Penguins would like keep Letang and Malkin is apparent; the issue is how much they should be willing to spend to make it happen.
At the moment, Ron Hextall has about $23.2 million available to finish assembling a roster for 2022-23, and ownership appears to have given him carte blanche to determine how to spend that money.
His plans are not known, since Hextall has not spoken publicly about the negotiations with Letang and Malkin — or anything else — in more than a month, but it seems unlikely that he’ll allow emotion to play a role in the talks.
At some point– perhaps sooner than later — Hextall figures to deliver a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to both players, and either finalize an agreement or move on to the numerous other challenges before him this summer.
Harsh? Perhaps. But the business side of hockey really can be brutal. And a franchise that lives in the past can’t expect to have much of a future.