On this, the occasion of Sidney Crosby‘s birthday, it feels like the right time to wonder about the future of the Penguins’ cast of characters around Crosby.
After all, not every Penguins player is as easy to track as Crosby, who’s seemingly obsessed with the numbers 8 and 7 (his jersey number – 87, cap hit [$8.7 million], birthdate of 8-7-87). The Penguins’ list of players currently entering contract years is pretty staggering, and starts with two players who’ve been with Crosby for ages: Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Penguins were quiet during 2021 NHL Free Agency
The quickest explanation for the Penguins’ quiet 2021 offseason is that they’ve been strapped for cash. As of this writing, Cap Friendly estimates the Penguins’ salary cap space at a meager $121,795.
You could argue the Penguins ranked among the teams that felt the Kraken expansion draft sting the most. Essentially, they lost both Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann during that process. Their free-agent additions have been minor, with keeping Zach Aston-Reese seeming to be the shrewdest decision.
Sticking with Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith as their goalies after Jarry’s playoff meltdown submarined their Islanders series? Questionable, but the Penguins decided to make that leap of faith.
[Penguins hope goalie coaches can turn things around for Jarry, DeSmith]
But look around the league, and you can see that contending teams bribed their ways to more room for free-agent and trade splashes. If the Penguins really wanted to dump some salary, the Coyotes probably would’ve listened.
That doesn’t really seem like how Ron Hextall generally rolls, though. Most of all, it just seems wise that the Penguins didn’t box themselves into too many corners with some absolutely crucial contract year decisions looming.
Let’s start with the two biggest names, and maybe the toughest decisions.
Tough contract extension calls for Penguins with Letang, Malkin
On July 22, Ron Hextall hinted that he might want to keep some of these contract year players around, but didn’t tip his hand about possible extensions for Letang, Malkin, and others.
“Once we get through the draft and free agency, we’ll get more on it,” Hextall said. “But at this point, we’ve just had more general discussions or mentions of wanting to resign the players.”
Malkin carries risks, but Penguins kind of have to bring him back, right?
Malkin, 35, enters the final year of a deal that carried a Penguins-friendly $9.5 million cap hit. Looking at his career, it sure feels like Crosby’s 87 fixation affected Malkin’s own contract negotiations. From 2009-10 to 2013-14, Malkin also carried that $8.7M cap hit. Since 2014-15, Malkin’s had that $9.5M AAV. That’s slightly more that Crosby’s extremely team-friendly (and maybe NHLPA-annoying?) cap hit. But it’s a pretty marginal difference.
It also lines up interestingly with the player drafted ahead of him in 2004: Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin carried a cap hit of slightly more than $9.5M for a whopping 13 years, then turned around and signed a five-year deal with a $9.5M cap hit this offseason.
Logically, it feels like that might be the sort of contract Malkin would want, right? If anything, he’s given the Penguins some nice deals during the peak years of his career. If Malkin took less — or even settled for a more modest term — then the Penguins would once again resonate as a profoundly lucky franchise.
Speaking of luck, that’s where a Malkin extension gets a bit scarier for the Penguins.
[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
In general, the Penguins face some “What if?” questions surrounding injuries, and those hypotheticals extend way back to Mario Lemieux dominating while undergoing chemotherapy.
With Crosby, it’s mostly been good luck. This was a player whose career was threatened by concussions, but he persevered. His gritty-for-a-star-player-style still opened him up to some extra issues, yet Crosby’s mostly been able to endure.
Malkin’s injury history has been checkered, too, and it’s relevant for a player who will turn 36 before his next contract begins. Since 2009-10, Malkin’s only flirted with fully healthy seasons twice: 75 games played in 2011-12, and 78 in 2017-18.
When Malkin’s been healthy, he’s performed at the level that would easily make him one of the 100 best NHL players ever. His 1.175 points-per-game ranks third among active NHL players. Malkin’s only behind Connor McDavid (1.41) and Crosby (1.275), while leading Ovechkin (1.103) and the rest. Remarkable.
Risk-reward with Letang, Malkin
Beyond injuries, there’s also a concern that the aging curve will render Malkin far less effective. While he scored 28 points in 33 games, Malkin struggled from a two-way perspective last season. Via Evolving Hockey:
Now, that doesn’t mean Malkin can’t get back on track. And there’s a (reasonable) argument that people should take both the 2020-21 and 2019-20 seasons with a grain of salt.
Still, the Penguins must weigh the value of Malkin and Letang — both actual, and sentimental — against the risks of serious decline. Like Malkin (and Crosby), Letang’s been dogged by injuries. Letang and Malkin would both qualify as “35+ contracts” on their next deals, so if they demand term, the Penguins would face difficult choices.
Both look a little dicier in 2020-21, but if you zoom out for the last three years, Malkin and Letang’s RAPM charts remind you that they’d be tough for the Penguins to replace. They also present remarkably similar overall impacts (also via Evolving Hockey):
From a PR perspective, it feels like the Penguins have more latitude to move on from Letang than Malkin.
For years, there have been on-again, off-again Letang trade rumors. There were rumblings that, perhaps, Jim Rutherford left, in part, because he wanted to trade Letang.
Whether that’s true or not, you could argue that Penguins fans might be more “primed” to accept that Letang might leave — either via a trade in this contract year, or free agency.
While they wouldn’t replace Letang, the Penguins might look at their other defensemen as a group that could soften the blow by committee. Between Michael Matheson, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson, the Penguins are spending $4.025M – $4.875M for two seasons or more in other defensemen. From year to year, all of Matheson, Marino, and Pettersson have ranged from looking like gems to looking a little lost.
Quietly, the Penguins have developed into a sneaky-strong defensive team. Falling in the first round soured some of those impressions, but you might squint and picture a defense that could remain competent even if they had to make the difficult call to part ways with Letang.
Letang’s entering that contract year with a $7.25M cap hit that was, again, pretty Penguins-friendly. It’s unclear how the absolutely wild gold rush for defensemen might impact Letang, as Darnell Nurse, Seth Jones, and others are in their prime earning years. (The market for, say, Mark Giordano might be more instructive.)
Rust, Carter, and plenty of other contract years — but also flexibility for Penguins
Throughout their run with Crosby, Letang, and Malkin, the Penguins made their blunders, and found some steals. Amid those ups and downs, credit the Penguins for this, though: they haven’t really boxed themselves into corners by over-comitting to players outside of their core.
Look at the way other teams keep sanding away their flexibility, and the Penguins stand out for being able to zig and zag where others were stuck. The Oilers alone seem insistent on gambling on bad bets around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
According to Cap Friendly, the Penguins are expected to have about $32.8M in cap space during the 2022 offseason.
[PHT’s Offseason Trade Tracker]
Naturally, that space can be deceptive, as Crosby and others only represent 11 roster spots covered. Here are some of the key contract years/extension questions the Penguins will be weighing.
- Again, Malkin and Letang.
- Bryan Rust, 29, could be in line for a huge raise from his bargain $3.5M cap hit.
- Jeff Carter, 36, was a revelation for the Penguins. His longer outlook is mysterious, though.
- Kasperi Kapanen, 25, sees his $3.2M cap hit expire. He’s a pending RFA, and would be eligible for salary arbitration.
- Zach Aston-Reese, 26, just signed that one-year, $1.725M contract. Maybe he won’t be as hidden of a gem after 2021-22?
Zach Aston-Reese, signed 1x$1.75M by PIT, is a shutdown bottom six forechecking winger who has put up some of the best scoring chance prevention numbers in the NHL in the past two seasons. #LetsGoPens pic.twitter.com/s2Ezhl09Mf
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) August 5, 2021
- Casey DeSmith, 29, would be a UFA after his $1.25M cap hit expires.
- There are smaller considerations, as Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, Chad Ruhwedel also enter contract years.
Well, there shouldn’t be a shortage of motivation among Penguins thanks to those contract years. Naturally, Pittsburgh could consider extensions for some, beyond players who just signed, like Aston-Reese. (Frankly, I’d see if he’d extend at a team-friendly price once that’s legal, though.)
Tough calls, but at least the Penguins have options
The Penguins might also want to shimmy out of a deal or two. If Jason Zucker can’t rebound, would someone take him off their hands? Might they lose patience with Jarry?
Overall, the Penguins face a host of key contract-year/extension decisions. Malkin and Letang are the most monumental emotionally (and financially), while Rust has been a true gem. These aren’t easy calls, especially if the Penguins move on from one or more of Letang, Malkin, and Rust.
In many cases, there are advantages to proactively signing contract extensions. Considering the age of Malkin and Letang, and the Penguins’ unclear window to contend, playing out the season might be a smart gamble. Neither situation really resonates as a “no-brainer” decision. At least when you consider how dangerous it would be if the Penguins plummeted after letting Letang, Malkin, or even both walk.
If they play their cards right, though? They might just squeeze out a bit more juice from what’s been a remarkable era of success.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.