PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall wants to find a way to have Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang stay with the club for the rest of their careers.
“In a perfect world (Malkin) retires a Penguin,” Hextall said Monday. “And I think Tanger’s the same.”
In a perfect world, anyway.
The NHL in the salary-cap era is hardly that.
Perhaps that’s why, when Hextall was asked what was missing this season from a group that let a 3-1 lead slip a way in a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, he joked “a little more cap space would be great.”
He’s not getting it.
The Penguins have habitually spent up to the cap limit during the hugely successful era led by Malkin, Letang and longtime captain Sidney Crosby. That “spend to win now” approach is not going to change with Fenway Sports Group now signing the checks after buying the club from Ron Burkle and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux last fall.
The question, however, is how much money the Penguins are willing to offer a pair of 35-year-old franchise icons who are less than two months away from entering free agency for the first time.
Letang hardly appears to have lost a step. The defenseman is coming off a season in which he collected a career-high 68 points while playing a bit more responsibly in his own end. He averaged a staggering 25:47 of ice time and said last week he’d like to play at least five more seasons.
Letang also is finishing a contract that paid him $7.25 million a season. Considering his fitness level and his production, it’s reasonable to think he’d command a bit of a raise on the open market, though Letang said last week his preference would be to find a way to stay in Pittsburgh.
Malkin feels likewise, but his situation is thornier. He said “good players sign good contracts” last week and while he scored 20 goals this season despite missing nearly half of the year while recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, he was not particularly effective in 5-on-5 situations while commanding $9.5 million. He also turns 36 in July and has missed at least 10 games due to injuries nine times in his last 10 seasons.
Hextall stressed he would not provide details on the nature of the team’s talks with Malkin and Letang, but hinted he’s not concerned about their age.
“They’re both great athletes,” he said. “They both have been here a long time. They’re both performing at a high level right now. We’d certainly like to have them in the mix come September.”
Malkin and Letang’s respective statuses are the two biggest pieces of a very unwieldy puzzle Hextall has to piece together over the summer. Forwards Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle, Rickard Rickell and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith are set to become free agents while forwards Danton Heinen and the enigmatic Kasperi Kapanen are restricted free agents.
Hextall did lock down one piece of the puzzle, signing forward Bryan Rust to a six-year deal over the weekend that will keep the versatile two-time Stanley Cup winner in the fold through 2028. Rust, who had 24 goals and 34 assists this season, underwent what Hextall called a minor procedure on one of his knees recently but should be ready well ahead of training camp.
By then Hextall will have clarity on his team’s immediate future. He believes he has it on its immediate past, praising the Penguins for their resiliency during an eventful season that included extended absences by Crosby and Malkin and a COVID-19 outbreak. Pittsburgh managed to extend its playoff streak to 16 straight years, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
Yet the Penguins also haven’t made it out of the first round since 2018. That’s not the standard for a team that plays in an arena with five Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters.
Six months into FSG’s tenure, there appears to be no hurry to make drastic changes, including in the front office. Hextall, who took over in February 2021 after Jim Rutherford’s abrupt resignation, appears as if he will get a chance to guide the team through at least the early stages of the twilight of Crosby’s Hall of Fame career.
“Everything is good,” Hextall said. ”(Fenway Sports Group is) totally committed to winning. … We’ve got some things that we’re looking at in terms of adding to staff and stuff. We’re moving along.”