Ron Hextall has only been on the job in Pittsburgh for a little more than a year-and-a-half and he is already facing one of the biggest offseasons in franchise history.
Not only are the Penguins coming off a fourth consecutive First Round exit, this time losing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers, but two of the biggest players in franchise history — center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang — are just weeks away from potentially reaching unrestricted free agency where they could end up playing for new teams.
These are not just run of the mill players, or even long-time players. They are franchise icons. Malkin and Letang have been two of the top-three players for the franchise’s greatest run of sustained success, resulting in five Conference Finals appearances, four Stanley Cup Final appearances, and three championships, all while being among the best in the world at their respective positions.
They are core players and Hall of Famers.
For the longest time it seemed like an easy call that they would finish their careers in Pittsburgh alongside the third member of that core, center and team captain Sidney Crosby. That no longer seems to be a given as free agency looms around the corner and no new contracts have been signed for Malkin and Letang. The Penguins keep saying all of the right things about wanting to keep both, but it is ultimately going to come down to price, term, and how much faith Hextall, Brian Burke, and the rest of the franchise have in them continuing to be top players for at least the next few years.
On one hand, they are going to be 36 (Malkin) and 35 (Letang) when the 2022-23 season begins in October, and that would only be year one of long-term contracts. They are both still excellent players right now, but father time will forever remain undefeated and there are not many players in their late 30s that remain top-tier players. Long-term deals could be problematic a couple of years down the line.
There is also reality that, for all of their regular season success and continued appearances in the playoffs, that they have lost five consecutive series and not been out of the First Round in four years. When teams do not win, teams make changes. There is an argument to be made that this would be a good time for the Penguins to hit a reset button, let them walk, and use their more than $24 million in leftover salary cap space to add a handful of younger players.
That option actually sounds somewhat intriguing in theory.
But you have to be able to find good players, that you can afford, that want to play for you, and will ultimately provide more value than what Malkin and Letang still can both this season and in the future.
That is easier said than done because these two are almost certainly the best free agent options at their positions.
That is absolutely the case for Letang. So let’s start with him. If the Penguins were to prioritize either player, it should be Letang because he is the most difficult to replace and still might be the best long-term option in terms of his ability to maintain his current level of play. He is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, is fanatical about his health and staying in shape, and the free agent defense market is a complete wasteland of talent after him and John Klingberg.
Klingberg is a great offensive player, but he is also the player that Letang’s harshest critics think Letang is (all offense, bad defense). For the cost it would take to get him (if you could get him) you might as well just keep the better player you already have. Beyond that, the free agency options are brutal.
[Related: Top potential unrestricted free agents]
Jakob Chychrun and Matt Dumba could be trade options, and for as intriguing as somebody like Chychrun might be given his age, talent, and cheap contract, that takes assets to give up in a trade. Not only do the Penguins lack tradable assets, they have a general manager that is notoriously reluctant to make those sorts of moves.
Kadri is coming off of a career year in Colorado, but he is also going to be 33 at the start of his contract. For as good as he was this season, his best days might still be in the rear view mirror and there is no guarantee he duplicates that production in a different situation. Trocheck is younger and a good two-way player, but his offense took a bit of a fall this season. There is a world of difference between a superstar’s (Malkin) decline and a normal second-line center’s (Trocheck) decline. One is starting from a significantly higher point.
J.T. Miller is again rumored to be available, but there is again the question of what you have to give up as well as the fact he only has one year remaining on his deal.
Malkin has had his health issues, and he is not the same player at 5-on-5 that he has been at his peak, but he can still score, and he can still make a major impact on the power play. And that not only still matters, he can do both things better than any reasonable replacement the Penguins could find this offseason.
[Related: Offseason trade targets]
Whether the Penguins keep Malkin or Letang or let them walk, the long-term future three or four years down the line is bleak.
There is no move this offseason (or next offseason) that is going to change that. They have been at the top for 16 years with three superstars leading the way, and those superstars are racing toward the end of their careers. Eventually your run at the top ends.
In the immediate short-term, this is still a playoff team. It is a playoff team by a comfortable margin. There was a 20-point gap this past season between them and the first non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Yes, they lost again. Yes, they have some flaws. And yes, there is going to come a point in the next few years where they will have to legitimately tear it all down to the foundation and seriously rebuild for the first time in 20 years.
But they are not at that point yet. As long as you can still make the playoffs (and they can) there is no reason to stop doing so. Letting your good players walk over a couple of million and concern of what they might look like in two or three years and bringing in lesser players is not going to make the short-term or long-term situation any better.
In the short-term, Malkin and Letang are the best options available to them this offseason and I am not sure there is much debate to that given the available options.
Their production is not going to fall off of a cliff in one year, and maybe not in the next two years and that should allow the Penguins to continue to be a playoff team over that time. In which case, maybe they get better goaltending (or healthy goaltending) in a series. Maybe things fall their way in a series or two and they scrape together one more run.
Or maybe things remain status quo and they lose again. Also a real possibility.
But at least you have still given yourself a chance and to still a competitive team around Crosby as he finishes his career. And why wouldn’t you want to do that? You still have elite players and a team that is capable of making the playoffs. Take advantage of it while you can.