The Pittsburgh Penguins signed 37-year-old forward Jeff Carter to a two-year, below-market deal on Wednesday. Penguins GM Ron Hextall punted bigger questions about core players Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on Thursday.
Both Letang and Malkin have expressed an earnest desire to stay with the only team they’ve known for the entirety of their 15-year careers, but the only news has been no news since Hextall named the pair top-priorities last summer.
There was a little sniping through the media as TSN reporter Pierre LeBrun reported that “Letang thinks he can play forever.” It was obviously a bit of vented disagreement from the Penguins’ side.
For the record, Letang said to Pittsburgh media this month that he wants to play until he’s 40. He told the French media, maybe 45.
Hextall called Malkin and Letang top priorities but essentially punted again on Thursday morning.
“We’ve had discussions with both guys. Certainly, they’re a top priority for us. We have a limited amount of cap space to squeeze everybody in, but that’s certainly our goal. Negotiations have been fine, and we’ll continue on,” Hextall said.
“Geno and Tanger have been here for, I think, 16 years. I know they’ve done a lot for the city, and the city has been good to them. So certainly a match that we’d like to continue on with, but obviously, the players have choices too. So, we’ll see where (negotiations) go.”
Did the last part of that sentence jump out at you, too?
“I don’t negotiate publicly,” Hextall cautioned.
The Penguins are in the midst of a six-game winning streak and 17 of 19. They’ve charged from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to within striking distance of the Florida Panthers, who lead all NHL teams.
Their team doesn’t require a shakeup and could conceivably exist with much of the current roster for another year, maybe two.
They’ve made the charge despite significant injuries, fatigue, mix-and-match lines, and integrating a rusty Evgeni Malkin back into the lineup. With all of the obstacles, the wins keep coming. Last week, the Penguins had a full roster for the first time this season. It lasted about 24 hours before Jason Zucker left the lineup. He had core muscle surgery this week.
A few days later, Teddy Blueger left the lineup when he suffered a fractured jaw on a hit from Brenden Dillon.
Part of the reason is Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry. The other part is the Penguins depth. One player exits the lineup, the next one enters.
Hextall is not one for blockbuster trades, though as the Flyers GM, he traded center Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for a first-round pick (and Jori Lehtera). Hextall was in the process of building Philadelphia when upper management became impatient and wanted a greater say.
A couple of weeks ago, Flyers senior advisor Bobby Clarke blasted Hextall for his Flyers tenure. While some of Clarke’s criticisms didn’t survive scrutiny, Hextall didn’t take big swings at the NHL trade deadline, either.
“I feel pretty comfortable with our team right now and our depth. But certainly, as we get towards the deadline, you refine things and see which way things go with injuries and whatnot, and make decisions as we have more information,” Hextall said on Thursday.
The Penguins should feel comfortable, shouldn’t they? Even winning hasn’t deterred the Penguins’ process.
“I guess don’t get a big head,” Bryan Rust deadpanned about the potential danger that winning ugly poses to building a solid process.
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Hextall could have let optimism creep into his words. He could have been reassuring.
PHN has been following the progress of contract negotiations with Rust, Malkin, and Letang, at least as much as those on the inside will let anything slip.
From what we know, Hextall’s choice of words, “players have choices, too,” cuts directly to the Penguins’ stance in negotiations. They surely would like everyone back. The Pittsburgh Penguins would like the storybook ending, but it will be on the team’s terms.
That part was crystal clear. It appears Carter took the team’s terms when he signed a two-year deal at a significant pay cut. Good third-line centers, even Nick Bonino, often sign in the $4 million range. Sometimes higher.
What is fair or what works for the Penguins may differ from what the players feel is fair. We’re almost to February, and no deals yet. Hextall didn’t commit to offering hope.
And that’s where it stands.
Addition (2:12 p.m.): Hextall did offer this nugget about his UFAs, in general. The list of Penguins free agents includes Evan Rodrigues, Rust, Brian Boyle, Zach Aston-Reese, and Danton Heinen. Gleen from it what you will.
“You know, we’d like to sign some of our UFAs. We have a hard salary cap, so they’re going to have to work with us. And, you know, certain players, if they want the most money, they’re probably going to go elsewhere. But I think you can say that about every team. So we’re hoping that our guys are comfortable here, which I believe they are, and hopefully, we can find a deal that satisfies both sides.”