The merits of the Pittsburgh Penguins re-signing Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin have been debated since long before either agreed to his new contract earlier this month.
And then some.
Every conceivable argument for retaining — or severing ties to — one or both has received a thorough public airing.
Many of those positions were passionately held.
Quite a few were compelling.
Some were even convincing.
And at least one — the long-term impact the deals than Letang and Malkin got will have on the Penguins’ salary-cap situation — might have been a bit overstated.
Now, no one can say yet how Malkin will perform over the next four seasons, or Letang over the next six.
Perhaps Malkin will shake off his recent spate of serious injuries and return to being a valuable contributor all over the ice, in almost all situations. Or maybe he will do little more than generate an occasional highlight — probably on the power play — and make Ron Hextall regret that he didn’t take the salary-cap space he used on Malkin to try to lure Vincent Trocheck or Nazim Kadri … or almost anyone else.
And it could be that Letang — whose commitment to conditioning leaves him with a physique that makes a slab of granite seem flabby by comparison — will continue to make frequent appearances on the list of top vote-getters for the Norris Trophy. Then again, the major health issues he had earlier in his career and all demanding minutes he’s played over the years will conspire to turn him into, well, the guy who used to be Kris Letang.
The only certainty in either case is that, regardless of how things play out, there will be plenty of people saying, “I told you so,” because there are so many on either side. And just about everywhere in between.
Now, Hextall likely would have preferred to not give guys in their mid-30s more than a couple of years on their new contracts, but it’s clear that doing so was necessary, whether simply to reach an agreement because other clubs would have been prepared to do so (in Letang’s case) or to water down the salary-cap hit (in Malkin’s).
Even some proponents of doing whatever it took to keep Letang and Malkin expressed concern about the impact those cap hits could have on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ ability to cobble together a competitive lineup when their new contracts are winding down.
That was completely understandable, but might prove to be unduly alarming.
Assuming there’s not another pandemic or similar calamity, anyway.
There was a time when the cap ceiling soared in a way of which Wall Street could only dream.
When the cap was introduced by the 2005-06 season, it was $39 million. By Year 6, it was $69.4 million.
And in 2019-20, when the regular season was abruptly aborted by coronavirus, it stood at $81.5 million.
But the resultant loss of revenue around the league through the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, when games were played in empty (or largely empty) arenas, stunted the growth of the cap.
It stayed at $81.5 million through the just-concluded season and will rise just $1 million for 2022-23. Growth, if any, figures to be slow for a couple more years, as players repay an estimated $1 billion to the owners because of Hockey-Related Revenues lost when games were canceled or contested in empty buildings.
There are projections that should happen in the next two years or so.
And when the NHL returns to its conventional formula for calculating the cap range, precedent suggests the ceiling should rise by seven figures every year.
Which means that those down-the-road cap hits for Letang — and especially, Malkin — might not be quite as problematic as some anticipate.
Obviously, the Pittsburgh Penguins would prefer to get a good return on the investment they make in any player (or at least to have the cap space to shop for a replacement), but raising the ceiling should ease the sting a bit if the older guys underperform as their deals are winding down.
That’s something to keep in mind when another guy — one who figures to have a cap hit of, oh, let’s say $8.7 million — needs a contract to replace the one that will expire in 2025.