Letang, Malkin, other contract years loom for Penguins

Letang, Malkin, other contract years loom for Penguins
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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:

Letang, Malkin, other contract years loom for Penguins Geno player card

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):

Letang, Malkin, other contract years loom for Penguins RAPM three year

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?

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Spencer Carbery hired as Capitals coach after 2 seasons as Maple Leafs assistant

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    Spencer Carbery got his start in coaching in the minors with the Washington Capitals watching closely.

    They liked what they saw, and they brought him back to fill the job they envisioned he would get.

    The Capitals hired Carbery as their next coach, ending their search for Peter Laviolette‘s successor by landing on a favorite of the organization who in recent years had become one of the NHL’s most intriguing candidates. He now is tasked with getting Washington back in the playoffs with an aging roster and extending the organization’s run of success a few more years while Alex Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky’s goals record.

    “Spencer is one of the best young coaches in the game who’s had success at every level at which he has coached,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. “We feel his leadership, communication skills, ability to develop players and familiarity with our organization will be a tremendous asset as he makes this next step in his coaching career.”

    Carbery spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, running the power play that ranked second in the league over that time. Before the Leafs hired him, he was considered the heir apparent to Laviolette because of his time with the Capitals’ top minor league affiliate, the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.

    When Hershey VP of hockey operations Bryan Helmer was interviewing candidates for his head-coaching gig in 2018, he asked Carbery how long until he saw himself in that kind of role in the NHL. Carbery gave himself five years and nailed that projection.

    “He did an incredible job for us when he was here, and I knew that he would be an NHL coach at one point down the road,” Helmer told The Associated Press by phone. “He wanted to make sure that he was ready to make that step. He went through the steps, and I think he’s ready for the NHL.”

    Carbery coached Hershey for three years before getting the NHL promotion to Sheldon Keefe’s staff in Toronto. At the time, there wasn’t an opening for an assistant in Washington.

    There is now, and Carbery at 41 usurps Keefe as the youngest coach in the league after going from a Capitals’ homegrown prospect who began with their ECHL team in South Carolina to one of the hottest names on the market. He interviewed with the San Jose Sharks for their vacancy last year and multiple others this spring.

    The Capitals got him back before a rival team could scoop him up. They chose Carbery from a pool of candidates that also included former captain-turned-Tampa Bay assistant Jeff Halpern, Philadelphia associate coach Brad Shaw and others with more experience.

    “I would like to thank the Capitals organization for affording me the opportunity to lead this team,” Carbery said. “I look forward to working with this group of talented players and building upon the winning culture in place. I would also like to thank the Toronto Maple Leafs organization for all their support over the past two years.”

    Carbery’s job won’t be an easy one. Five years removed from Washington winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, the team is coming off missing the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade and could be on the verge of changes beyond coaching.

    MacLellan must decide how much to shuffle the roster, but in no way is he beginning the process of rebuilding. With Ovechkin, the 2018 playoff MVP and longtime face of the franchise, about to turn 38 and sitting 73 goals away from breaking Gretzky’s career record, the organization from owner Ted Leonsis down has set a goal of continuing to contend while the Russian star is under contract for three more seasons.

    Helmer, who played with Ovechkin briefly in 2008-09, said Carbery’s relationships with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and other Leafs stars will only help him moving forward.

    “It’s going to be a great mix,” Helmer said. “Spencer really stays on top of it. He expects a lot out of his players and he holds them accountable, which is a great thing. I see big things coming from Spencer and what he can do with the Caps.”

    Golden Knights reach second Stanley Cup Final after Game 6 win over Stars

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — William Karlsson scored two goals and had an assist as the Vegas Golden Knights advanced to their second Stanley Cup Final with a 6-0 rout over the Dallas Stars, who had extended the Western Conference Final to six games after losing the first three.

    William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio each had a goal and an assist for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had a goal. Carrier, Marschessault and Karlsson were all part of the inaugural 2017-18 Knights season that ended in their Cup Final.

    Adin Hill stopped 23 shots for his second career playoff shutout – both against the Stars. The other was 4-0 in Game 3 last Tuesday, when the Knights were already within one win of clinching the series before Dallas overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in both Games 4 and 5.

    Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Florida will be Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    Vegas led the Western Conference in the regular season with 51 wins and 111 points. The Panthers completed a four-game sweep of Carolina in the East final last Wednesday, but their 40 wins and 92 points in the regular season were the fewest among the 16 teams that began these NHL playoffs.

    Instead of having to face a do-or-die Game 7 at home against the Stars, coach Bruce Cassidy and the Knights got off to another fast start and never left any doubt about the outcome of this series that included three overtime games.

    It was the most lopsided playoff loss for the Stars since the franchise moved south from Minnesota before the 1993-94 season.

    “You just expect more from yourself in a game like this,” said Stars forward Joe Pavelski, the 38-year-old veteran still without a Stanley Cup after 17 seasons.

    The Stars got captain Jamie Benn back after his two-game suspension for a cross-check to the neck area of Vegas captain Mark Stone early in Game 3. But Benn already had a minus-2 rating without a shot after playing only 3:46 in the first period, and finished minus-2 with only one shot his 12 1/2 minutes on the ice.

    Vegas led for good when Carrier scored 3:41 into the game after a puck poked from behind the net in the vicinity of three Dallas players. Carrier skated across the front of the crease and put a backhander in the net, the ninth time this postseason the Knights scored in the first five minutes of a game.

    Karlsson’s power-play goal came midway through the first period made it 2-0, and after a penalty that likely had prevented him from scoring.

    Nicolas Roy took a shot that deflected off Jake Oettinger’s glove and popped up in the air behind the goalie. Karlsson was charging into the crease when Stars defenseman Esa Lindell raised his stick and swatted the puck out of play, drawing a delay of game penalty.

    With the man advantage, Reilly Smith took a shot from the circle to the left, which was deflected in front by Roy and then off Oettinger’s extended skate before Karlsson knocked in the rebound.

    After Kolesar made it 3-0 in the first, and Marchessault scored his ninth goal in the second, Karlsson’s franchise record 10th goal for a playoff series extended the lead to 5-0 only two minutes into the third period.

    Oettinger had been 3-0 when the Stars were facing elimination this postseason, including Game 7 in the second round against Seattle before stopping 64 of 68 shots the past two games against the Knights.

    That was after Vegas had scored three goals on five shots in the first 7:10 to chase him from Game 3, which was the only lopsided game in the series until the finale. Two of their three regular season game went to shootouts.

    Dallas was only the fifth team to force a Game 6 in an conference final or NHL semifinal after being down 0-3, and the first since the Stars lost to Detroit in a sixth game in 2008. Only two teams got to a Game 7, which both lost – the New York Islanders to Philadelphia in 1975; and the New York Rangers to Boston in 1939.

    Vegas avoided a Game 7 at home against the Stars and coach Peter DeBoer, who is 7-0 in such do-or-die games, including the Seattle series finale two weeks ago. DeBoer was the Vegas coach for its only Game 7 wins – in the second round in 2020 against Vancouver and 2021 in the first round against Minnesota. But he was fired by the Golden Knights after they missed the playoffs last season for the only time in their short existence.

    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.