We’ve spent the summer discussing the Pittsburgh Penguins future. Penguins GM Ron Hextall had a quiet offseason which ends on Thursday morning when his 58 players hit the ice for training camp, but the silence on some matters only made the speculation louder.
Such as what about new contracts for Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin?
The long-time Penguins stalwarts were eligible for new contracts on July 28. Nearly two months later, there’s been barely a peep about moving forward with either. You know the issues. Malkin is recovering from knee surgery and will be 36-years-old when the next contract begins. Letang is 34
A few weeks ago, Letang told our colleagues at the Post-Gazette that the Penguins core staying together “is special.”
He seemed to throw shade at players who leave for more money or to chase a Stanley Cup.
Tell me again…Why?
The quiet offseason in which the Pittsburgh Penguins had a net negative loss after losing Brandon Tanev to the expansion draft and trading Jared McCann for prospect Filip Hallander, but Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen were the replacements.
Three straight first-round playoff exits put everyone on edge. The uncertainty extends to top-line winger Bryan Rust who also be a UFA after this season.
If the Penguins core isn’t playing for their future this season, it seems like the organization is prepared to allow them to walk if contractual asks exceed the organization’s pain tolerance.
The issue will divide the fanbase before and long after decisions are made. But why is it so special to stay together? Will it negatively affect legacies, careers, or how the players view themselves?
It almost seems like the players have Stockholm Syndromed themselves to staying together. But an example of the positives is staring at them from the face of an old friend: Marc-Andre Fleury.
Pittsburgh Penguins Past
There were tears and hugs and hurt feelings when Fleury was broomed aside in 2017. Before Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Jordan Staal, and anyone else who lumped into the inner circle of the Pittsburgh Penguins Crosby era, the original member of the Penguins core was gone.
And Fleury’s career took off.
Let’s be blunt. Fleury was not heading for the Hall of Fame, was not discussed as one of the game’s top-goalies, and probably would not be a Vezina winner or a real contender for the 2022 Olympic team.
Fleury had, and still has, the entire Vegas Golden Knights fanbase in his corner. His absence from Pittsburgh also has more Penguins fans pining for the Flower than when he was here.
The change was nothing but positive, regardless of how Fleury’s Vegas tenure ended this summer and began again in Chicago.
Letang is still on top of his game. The fitness fanatic who plays 25 minutes per game in all situations remains a top-10 NHL defenseman. This summer, the market for defensemen, especially right-siders, exploded. Seth Jones got eight years at $76 million, Darnell Nurse got eight years and $72 million, and even Vince Dunn got $8 million from Seattle over the next two seasons.
Alex Goligoski got $5 million from Minnesota for this season.
The point of the exploding values of right-side defensemen directly affects Kris Letang. He signed a team-friendly eight-year, $58 million deal in 2013. Given the exploding values, his premier talent, and the Penguins waning Stanley Cup hopes, Letang’s best move would be to find the next great situation.
Last season, Letang scored 45 points (7-38-45) and was the second-leading scorer among NHL defensemen.
While we debate if the Penguins should re-sign Letang, he should look no further than his close friend, Fleury. The waves of guff Letang receives from the Penguins fanbase (despite his turnover rate and every other metric being perfectly in line with the top NHL defensemen) would be replaced by adoration of fans, real Stanley Cup hopes, and probably more money.
Heck of a downside, eh?
Letang could play at a high level for another four years.
Being allowed to flourish again cemented Fleury’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Letang probably wouldn’t win a Norris Trophy even in the right situation, but the baggage some Penguins fans like to strap to his back vanishes.
Malkin was on a tear with Kasperi Kapanen before injuring his knee in March. However, missing time with significant injury is a pattern with Malkin. One of the game’s very best is entering the final couple or few years of his career. If his wife’s proclamation that he finish his career in Russia holds, he probably has three more years.
That’s two more years to be a team captain, lift a Stanley Cup, and demonstrate to a new fanbase just how good he is but do so without Sidney Crosby’s shadow.
Imagine the praise for leading a team to the next level.
Even if Letang or Malkin didn’t win a Stanley Cup in their new home, would that diminish their three Stanley Cups? The memories and highlights they have already established aren’t going anywhere.
Did Peyton Manning diminish his legacy by going to the Denver Broncos? Maybe he diminished his Indianapolis Colts legacy, but the player elevated. Just like Fleury. And it’s not like Boston booed Ray Bourque for hoisting the Avalanche’s Cup.
Whether Pittsburgh Penguins management is making the core fight for the right to stay together, planning the next steps, or planning the dissolution, very few players get the perfect ending. Whether it’s a loss, a bad season, or injury, few players get to leave on their own terms.
And if they don’t get the storybook end, it doesn’t diminish the final product. The long-distance end may leave a sour taste for a bit, but time heals all wounds. Eventually, the spotlight fades, and the last game is irrelevant to the lasting legacy.
Tell me again why the Penguins core is so intent on staying together, even if the situation is screaming for an end sooner than later?