[UPDATE: Malkin has signed a four-year, $24.4 million extension to stay in Pittsburgh.]
The big news on Monday was the report that Evgeni Malkin, unable to work out a new deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, intends to head to unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career on Wednesday.
While the possibility was always there, it still seems like a stunning development given his career in Pittsburgh and how it always seemed like a given that he and Sidney Crosby were going to play their entire careers with the Penguins.
Over the past few weeks the sticking point was reportedly over contract term in the offers. But Brian Burke told the Tribune-Review’s Seth Rorabaugh that reports the Penguins did not offer a fourth year were incorrect.
Either way, the specifics are irrelevant at this point and the only thing that matters is Malkin seems intent on going to free agency and the possibility of him playing for another team is very, very real.
The question now becomes where could he actually go?
Even entering his age 36 season he is still an impact player and will be one of the best players available on the open market.
But there are some concerns.
Injuries have limited him greatly the past few years, including significant knee ailments.
There is also concern about his 5-on-5 play declining. The thing is, even as recently as the 2021-22 season he was scoring goals and generating chances at the same rate he has throughout his career. He averaged 1.08 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this past season, which was still the fifth-highest mark of his career.
What dramatically declined this year was his assist rate, going all the way down to 0.86 assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Is that a sign of Malkin’s decline? Or is it the reality of spending most of his 5-on-5 time playing next to Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen?
So now that Malkin going elsewhere seems like a real possibility, what are some of the potential options? Let’s take a look at five of them.
New York Rangers
Available salary cap space: $10.2 million
Why they make sense: The Rangers are set to lose both Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp in free agency, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of their second line. They are in a win-now mode after a run to the Eastern Conference Final and Malkin would be a massive offensive upgrade in the middle of their lineup.
Why it would not work: They have the salary cap space to sign Malkin right now, but a No. 2 center is not their only need. They only have 16 players currently under contract and still have to address the depth and defensive issues that plagued them for so much of last season. Unless Malkin took a dramatically reduced rate they would need to clear out a contract to sign him and still make necessary improvements to the roster. That is easier said than done. They should trade Jacob Trouba yesterday but his contract and trade restrictions make that nearly impossible.
Available salary cap space: $8.9 million
Why they make sense: They are still a pretty good team and nobody knows when, or if, Nicklas Backstrom will play again. The obvious way of making this work is putting Backstrom on long-term injured reserve and simply sliding Malkin into that spot on the roster.
Why it would not work: A lot of this rests on the possibility of Backstrom not playing, and while that seems possible, if not likely, it is not a given. The Capitals also have some pretty significant holes to address with goaltending being the biggest, seeing as how they do not currently have any goalies on the roster. They also already have a roster full of players in their 30s with injury concerns. Do they want another one added to that mix?
[NHL free agency tracker 2022: Full list of offseason signings]
Available salary cap space: $17.8 million
Why they make sense: This …. this actually makes a lot of sense. The Stars are a good team, but are absolutely desperate for more offense. They have plenty of cap space (with a catch) and are not afraid to sign older players to significant contracts. Their top line is set with Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz, while signing Malkin could potentially allow him to center a second line that kicks Seguin out to a wing spot.
Why it would not work: Remember all of that salary cap space? They still need to re-sign Robertson and starting goalie Jake Oettinger, who are both restricted free agents. That could be a problem. Actually, that would be the problem. Maybe the only problem.
Available salary cap space: $14.9 million
Why they make sense: Nazem Kadri is set to leave and is going to leave a big hole on their second line. Imagine adding Malkin to the defending Stanley Cup champions who already have a scary offense. It would be comical. They also have the salary cap space to maybe pull this off. How is a team this good still so far under the cap?
Why it would not work: They still need to sign six players to fill out their roster, including restricted free agent Artturi Lehkonen. But that still does not seem like much of a roadblock if they wanted to go this route.
Available salary cap space: $10.3 million
Why they make sense: Of course. There is still a possibility here. They are clearly not ready to turn the page on the Crosby era and are throwing out long-term contracts to everybody in an effort to maximize the next few years as best they can. Forget the history Malkin and the team have or sentimentality, he is still their best option given their current win-now approach. Somebody like Vincent Trocheck is not going to walk in there and make them a better team. Not in the short term. Not in the long term.
Why it would not work: If this was going to happen you have to think it would have happened by now, right? It still could. It absolutely still could. But the closer this gets to the start of the free agent signing period on Wednesday the less likely it all seems.