Was Keeping Penguins’ ‘Core’ Together the Right Move?
The Pittsburgh Penguins made a clear — and emphatic — statement about the direction of the franchise last summer, when Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were re-signed.
Both were in their mid-30s and poised to become unrestricted free agents when Ron Hextall worked out new contracts with them. Letang got a six-year deal with a salary-cap hit of $6.1 million, while Malkin received the same money on a four-year agreement.
Those signings, which were complemented by contract agreements reached with Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell, were tangible evidence of the belief by the front office — and the franchise’s new owners, Fenway Sports Group — that the Penguins, with a core assembled around Sidney Crosby, were capable of making a serious run at their sixth Stanley Cup.
The risks inherent in that approach were obvious: Not only were some of the team’s key players deep into the back side of their careers, but the Penguins hadn’t won a playoff series since 2018. Expecting that group to win four best-of-sevens in a row hardly was a sure thing.
Whether the Penguins will have an opportunity to win one series, let alone four, this spring remains to be seen. They currently are holding down the eighth and final berth in the Eastern Conference playoff field, and teams like Buffalo, Florida and the New York Islanders are close behind.
Statistically, at least, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten a reasonable return on the investments they’ve made in Malkin and Letang and, before that, Crosby.
Crosby is their leading scorer, with 24 goals and 36 assists in 49 games, and Malkin is second with 50 points. Letang, meanwhile, averages a team-high 24 minutes, 37 seconds of ice time and is their highest-scoring defenseman, with four goals and 17 assists, despite missing 17 games because of injuries (and a leave of absence that overlapped with his most recent one).
With about 2 1/2 months to go in the regular season, it’s premature to say whether management’s gamble to largely stick with its roster from the end of 2021-22 was prudent.
If the Penguins get into the playoffs and win a round or two, the reviews figure to be largely favorable. If the Penguins sit out the postseason for the first time since 2006, they likely will be scathing.
Regardless, when president of hockey operations Brian Burke was asked earlier this week whether the organization’s decision-makers had any misgivings about bringing back those veterans last summer, he had a one-syllable response that didn’t require much interpretation:
He then explained his rationale.
“I think it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I believe in all three of the athletes (Crosby, Letang and Malkin),” he said. “Sid was coming back, anyway, but these other two guys, it’s not just a good story. They’re valuable players. They’re important players to us, and to the franchise.
“And keep in mind, we kept the group together while we re-signed (Rust) and brought back (Rakell), and added Jan Rutta (via free agency). It’s not like we brought (Malkin and Letang) back and then did nothing to improve the roster. We added some pretty important players.”
Of course, those contracts tied up large chunks of the Penguins’ salary-cap space, which complicates Hextall’s efforts to adjust his major-league roster before the March 3 trade deadline.
Not that many clubs are exempt from cap concerns when investigating potential moves.
“It’s really hard to make trades,” Burke said. “There are 20-plus teams within $2 million of the cap (ceiling), the last time I looked. It has to be dollar-in, dollar-out for most teams.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins, of course, sunk a lot of their dollars into some longtime members of the organization last summer.
Sometime in the next few months, the return they’ll be getting on that money should be clear.