Examining the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang situation

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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.

[Related: Nichushkin, Palat, Kadri among players whose stock rose this postseason]

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.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Top performances from 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs]

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.

If they are unable to re-sign Malkin, the potential free agency options start with players like Nazem Kadri and Vincent Trocheck.

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.

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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.