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Kingerski: Move Evgeni Malkin to Wing; Use Rare Free Agent Class

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Evgeni Malkin celebrates

On the list of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ priorities, it has not been stated and may not even appear.

Move Evgeni Malkin from center to the left wing. It’s been written and said before in this space, but it should now be a very serious consideration and near the top of the priority list for all involved. The Penguins should investigate a significant structural change and take full advantage of the rare bumper crop of free-agent centers to facilitate their makeover for next season.

There might not be a better time than July 1, 2024, to snag a legitimate center capable of second-line duties behind Sidney Crosby. And possibly transition to life beyond Crosby.

The free agent class of centers is unlike any in years.

Mario Lemieux moved to the wing in his final seasons to maximize his effectiveness and to lessen the physical effects of the 82-game NHL grind. Pirates cornerstone Andrew McCutchen begrudgingly moved out of center field.

After watching Malkin fight through this season, it seems unmistakable that such a move could rejuvenate the powerful forward who was forced to admit he can’t fly around the ice like he used to. Who knows, he might want to play more than two more years?

Malkin had 67 points (27-40-67) but the lowest points-per-game in his career (.82).

The same switch worked wonders for Claude Giroux at 30 years old.

Giroux, 36, is having a great second act in the later stages of his career. Over the past two seasons, he scored 56 goals and 143 points. When the move happened in 2017-18, Giroux posted a career year with 102 points (34-68-102).

Age happens. Accepting the reality could go a long way to setting the Penguins up for success beyond the coming season. Such a move could even lessen the burden on Crosby, who remarkably has not yet had shoulder surgery despite carrying an entire team for six months.

With Reilly Smith’s down year, if not poor fit with the Penguins, and trading Jake Guentzel, the team needs a top-six LW capable of more than 20 goals. Perhaps it’s Drew O’Connor’s time. There is no knocking his value or potential, but he had only 16 goals this season.

Is there any doubt Malkin could fill the scoring-winger role with aplomb?

Malkin will be 38 by next season and he’s indicated the two years remaining on his contract will be his last. As he comically bellowed on the first day of training camp this season, “Three more years!”

Well, now there are two left, and a similar treasure trove of available centers is unlikely to emerge in the near future.

Even if Malkin’s move doesn’t happen immediately, having the arrow in the quiver would be a perfect transitional move. What are the odds that Crosby and Malkin play a full 82-game schedule for the third consecutive year? They couldn’t do that in their prime, and it seems a lot to ask now. A significant injury to either one could very quickly derail a season, pushing the Penguins into a high lottery pick instead of a playoff position.

And make no mistake, earning a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs next season is the goal, not a top-five pick.

Penguins Salary Cap/Available UFAs

With Jeff Carter’s retirement and Michael Bunting’s lower salary compared to Guentzel, the Penguins figure to have at least $10 million in cap space on July 1. That’s not counting any trades that may add or subtract the stack of chips on Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas’s poker table.

Pending a couple of restricted-free agent contracts, the Penguins could have as much as $12 million to spend against the coming $87.7 million salary cap.

C’mon, with that kind of cap numerology, it has to be Sidney Crosby’s year, right? But I digress.

The Penguins are projected to be around 75-$77 million, including the penultimate year of Jack Johnson’s buyout and the final year of Jeff Petry’s salary retention.

It’s a great problem: How to spend eight figures when much of the roster is already set? As much as you’ll miss Jansen Harkins and Emil Bemstrom, there are always plenty of bargain pluggers available for bottom-six duty. Perhaps a shutdown defensive forward and one with some offensive pop would help.

For the sake of argument, let’s posit the Penguins will have $10 million to fill that top-six scoring need, perhaps a center.

Of course, between now and July 1, a few names may come off the board as teams lock up their pending UFAs. But a few will be available who will meet critical Penguins criteria: good skater, defensively responsible, offensively creative, and younger than 35.

With the Penguins’ cash situation, they can shoot for the stars.

The current pending list of UFA centers, some of whom have flipped to the wings but could flip back, includes names such as Sam Reinhart, Elias Lindholm, Matt Duchene, Chandler Stephenson, and RFA (with arbitration rights) Casey Mittelstadt, who had a good bump after being traded to Colorado.

Stephenson is the best of the bunch defensively and is a solid 50-55 point scorer. Sam Reinhart had a monster year with Florida, registering 94 while scoring 57 goals. He won’t be cheap.

You could forgive coach Mike Sullivan if he drooled at the potential of Crosby-Stephenson-Eller down the middle. The Penguins would lose far fewer leads, guaranteed.

But therein lies the Penguins’ great potential on July 1. They’ll have money to spend, and even more if they can move ill-fitting veterans.

It could be a transformative summer, with or without moving Malkin to the wing, but they won’t get a better chance to sign adequate replacements. If you’re curious, the 2025 UFA class is currently headlined by Crosby, John Tavares, Nick Backstrom, Ryan Johansen, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

We’ll assume Leon Draisaitl and Crosby will re-sign or that Draisaitl will be prohibitively expensive.

That’s the opposite of a bumper crop of free agents.

And that makes this summer their big chance.