This is yet another distasteful side effect of the NHL’s salary cap. Fans and observers of a certain team, especially a successful one, have to start judging just how much sand is left in the hourglass. They have to weigh the age of the best players, salaries of those players, when contracts run out, how much money will be available when they do, and what the alternatives would be, be they on the free agent or trade market or prospects coming through.
No one goes through this more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, because… well, no one’s been more successful than them. Three Cups, haven’t missed the playoffs in 15 years, it’s the envy of just about everyone else. But considering that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang, the absolute center of the organization for those 15 years, are all in their mid-30s, every time their season has ended since 2018 has brought about questions on whether the Penguins can continue to roll this formation out the following season.
However, it’s more pointed this summer, because both Malkin and Letang are free agents now. And apparently, discussions on extensions for both have not exactly gotten off to a good start. So for the first time in a very long time, maybe since both took the ice in black and gold, the Penguins have to think about a future without Geno or Letang or both.
The first thing the Pens have to do is clear out the noise from their playoff loss, and also their regular season. Luckily, as they’ve been recently purchased by FSG, who specialize in steel-eyed and emotionless analysis of what’s before them, that shouldn’t be too hard. I still insist they should film every meeting with Brian Burke where they try to explain to Burke how they evaluate things, and watch Burke turn a shade of purple that only Brock Lesnar or Violet Beauregarde are capable of.
Blowing a 3-1 lead to an overhyped and fraudulent Rangers team (I won’t be shaken from this stance, and you can go ahead and fight me, you in the Beukeboom jersey) stings for sure. But it’s important to remember all the factors. One, the Penguins kicked the Rangers all over the ice for most of this series. The analytics are decidedly in their favor, and as bad as Igor Shesterkin’s numbers look, the amount of chances that the Penguins created actually indicate that Shesterkin saved the Rangers goals, such was Pittsburgh’s dominance. They were undone by having to use their third-string goalie for almost all of the series. And when then they weren’t using the gassy Louis Domingue, they were going to the hail mary of tossing out Tristan Jarry, who hadn’t played in a month, in Game 7. They also lost Sidney Crosby thanks to a wandering Jacob Trouba elbow for two games. And they still perished in a Game 7 overtime off a power play. The margins can’t get much tighter.
As for the regular season, the Penguins weren’t great, but they were closer than the teeth-gnashing emanating from the Confluence would suggest. 103 points is 103 points for sure, and the Penguins were a top-10 team in both expected goals percentage and Corsi percentage. They even had some bad luck, as they didn’t even shoot eight percent at even-strength, 24th in the league. They shot 9.3 percent the previous season, and 8.7 percent the year before that. They’re due some more goals simply due to karma next year.
Which brings us to what to do with Letang and Malkin. Letang, of the two, is the one who looks to be a bit more on the decline. The Pens have been heavily sheltering him the past two seasons, starting a higher and higher percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone (57 and 60 percent, respectively). Letang’s metrics have still backed up anyway, even though he’s been starting closer to the opponent’s net more often. His Corsi and xG percentages have lagged behind the team rate the past two seasons. He just doesn’t drive play the way he once did.
And yet he had a career-high 68 points. D-men who can give you nearly a point-per-game aren’t really prevalent. You don’t find them in the “buy one take one” bin. And he wasn’t lucky to do so, as neither the Penguins shooting-percentage on either the power play or at evens was stratospheric when Letang was on the ice.
But still, as Letang gets more and more one-dimensional, an offense-only power play quarterback, it becomes harder and harder to justify giving him more than the $5 million for three years the Pens have reportedly offered. That’s not really the job description for a top pairing guy, and $5 mildo would be about the going rate for a second-pairing one.
The problem for the Penguins is the options on the free agent market aren’t going to make anyone weak in the knees. John Klingberg seems destined for the exit door in Dallas and he’s six years younger. But he’s going to command even more money than Letang is, and his numbers are pretty wonky too. Is he worth $7-8 million a year? Arguable. Josh Manson doesn’t have the offensive side. Nick Leddy is not an answer to a question anyone should be asking. The Pens may have no other options here, unless they can find a creative trade that doesn’t erode their depth. Or finding out how much of a role Pierre-Oliver Joseph is prepared to take on.
Malkin just keeps chugging along. He missed half the season through injury, and like most seasons there were large swaths of the season where you were sure his give-a-shit meter was bottoming out. And then you look up and he’s at a point-per-game again with glittering metrics. And again, the alternatives who might come cheaper are nearly non-existent. Vincent Trocheck? Nazem Kadri (if we can ignore the fact that Crosby would disembowel him on the first day of training camp)? Both are probably going to come in at more money than Malkin eventually wants or gets, unless he’s dead set on getting as close to the $9.5 million he gets now. Both are younger, though, in case the Penguins are looking at post-Crosby years.
Their other free agents of note are Kasperi Kapanen (restricted), Bryan Rust, Rickard Rakell, and Evan Rodrigues (all unrestricted). Unless both Malkin and Letang walk and aren’t replaced, they can’t keep them all. Rakell and Kapanen would seem to be redundant, with Rakell the superior if more fragile option. But Rakell is going to get a raise from $2.4 million, and Rodrigues is going to do better than the million and change he’s been paid.
The Pens have $29 million in cap space, so there is room for most of what they have to re-sign and add. So no, the Penguins aren’t done, depending on how they can either keep or replace their two big free agents. As with every year, we do all of this and the following April rolls around and the Pens have 100+ points and we’re wondering if they can manufacture one more run from memory. That’s where the safe money is this time too.