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Anderson: Amid Coming Changes, Keep Penguins Core Intact



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, NHL Trade Chatter

Too old and too slow are just a couple of the many charges being levied at the Pittsburgh Penguins after they missed the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. However, while so many are screaming for a top-to-bottom overhaul, and rightly so, let’s get one thing straight:

The core of future Hall of Famers – centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang – should still be kept together. If you have an argument against that, you’re probably too caught up in emotion of the team’s disappointing season.

There was some resistance a year ago when Letang and Malkin were re-signed as they approached free agency. However, that was the right move then, and keeping all three together is the right decision now. And not just because of all the feels.

Let’s shoot down some of the arguments for breaking them up as part of a rebuild:

They are a part of the too-old, too-slow problem. Nope. While the Penguins had problems against some of the younger, faster clubs, it wasn’t the big three who bogged them down. Letang and Crosby in particular still have good enough bursts, even if they aren’t Connor McDavid. Or Ryan Poehling.

None of the three, in their mid-30s and with three Stanley Cups on their resume, are too old or too slow. Their skill has not eroded to the point they are not all three still stars in the league. They proved that. Crosby (93) points and Malkin (83 points) played all 82 games and averaged more than a point a game. Letang had 41 points in 64 games despite a trying season with injuries – including a stroke — and the death of his father.

Malkin himself noted after the stunning and costly loss to lowly Chicago April 11 that “the league is young. A new generation is coming.” That doesn’t mean the Penguins’ big three is over the hill.

The team does need to get younger and faster, but that should happen with the supporting cast. There might also need to be tweaks in their system. Not something as drastic as becoming a trapping team, but a team that doesn’t assume it can play the same speed game that set the NHL on its ear in 2009.

They would bring back a wealth of good players and prospects. No doubt. But the fact that there are teams that would be such willing sellers to get even one of those players underscores their value together for the Penguins. Breaking them up would be a crime against hockey, and the sum of their return would just not bring equal value to what is packed into these three players – who, by the way, are all on cap-friendly contracts.

Keeping them together is rooted in emotion, not reality. Sure, it would be storybook stuff for them to stay together and finish their respective careers having never played for any other NHL teams. However, it would also be prudent given their talent. Having such a one-two punch at center plus a top two-way defenseman is enviable. Not to mention the boost they get from being teammates, and the entertainment value they bring for paying customers.

Let’s keep in mind that all three have a no-movement clause written into their contracts. They can’t be traded without agreeing to be moved. There is every indication that none of the three have any interest in moving to another club. If you believe at all in team chemistry and morale, then know that asking even one of the three to waive his contract protection could have a detrimental effect.

Crosby seems to be the closest to being immune to being moved. Dave Beeston, executive with Penguins owners Fenway Sports Group, said Friday that “it’s very important that Sidney Crosby never plays a game in another uniform other than the Penguins.” A day later Crosby reiterated his desire to finish his career in Pittsburgh — and it probably wasn’t by accident that he tossed in a reference to Malkin and Letang.

Why didn’t Beeston include Letang and Malkin?

Sure, Letang makes some glaring errors, and Malkin takes too many penalties, including offensive zone infractions, and sometimes tries to do too much on his own. Both can occasionally let their emotion get the better of them. The upside for both still outweighs those flaws.

Many top players have a risk-vs.-reward aspect to their game. And as good as Letang and Malkin are, they can’t reasonably be held to quite the standard Crosby sets. He is arguably at least in the top five or six players in NHL history. That doesn’t diminish their value.

Someday, the Penguins will need to move on from all three stars. That time is not here. It should come with their respective retirements.

The shame of them sitting out the playoffs this spring is that the organization clearly and decidedly did not build a good enough team around those three – moves and decisions that date back a couple seasons but were especially glaring in the months since Letang and Malkin re-signed — and wasted a season this late in their careers.

The good news is, Crosby, Malkin and Letang are not finished and can try again – assuming the Penguins don’t do something ill-advised like trying to break up that core, and assuming they make better decisions to give them the type of supporting cast they need and deserve.