We’ve already discussed the annual summer tradition of wondering if this is finally it for the Pittsburgh Penguins as we know it. It’s hard to define when this is “it” for a team that’s accomplished so much, as certainly, no group like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have earned more runway. They should be allowed to go until they fall over. Still, this summer saw Letang and Malkin become free agents, and it was the first time the actual reality that either or both could leave The Confluence.
Letang has since re-upped for six years, and will retire a Penguin. Malkin, however, remains adrift, and is going to be perhaps the biggest piggie heading to market come tomorrow, thanks to negotiations with the Penguins becoming turgid.
It’s not simple to sift through the clouds and muck of what’s gone on between the Pens and Malkin that have gotten everyone to this point. The Pens clearly want Malkin back, but at their price. Malkin wants to come back, but he feels he hasn’t been treated the way he should be. So he’s wielding the biggest hammer he has, which is that he’s going to listen to other teams and what they want to offer him and perhaps envision life elsewhere.
Malkin said before negotiations started that he was willing to take a pay cut, which he would have to do, given that he’s 36 and the salary cap has only gone up $1 million. And from Rob Rossi’s reporting, the amount of money isn’t really the issue. Malkin seems to have accepted that $6 million per year is what he’ll get from the Pens, and it’s what Letang got. But Malkin has been adamant about a fourth year, which would take him to his 40th birthday. The Pens say they’ve offered a fourth year. Malkin says they haven’t.
This may seem like nothing, and it really should be. What the Penguins are probably worried about is the fact that no one really “retires” in the NHL. Sure, guys stop playing, but they collect all their money, which means doing the Long Term Injury Replacement Shuffle, which can be quite annoying for teams. Say Malkin was to suffer another big injury, and hang up his skates a year or two before the deal ends. The Pens would have to stash the remaining years on LTIR, but balancing that with summer activity gets tricky because most teams like to only go to LTIR during the regular season. This means being cap-compliant with Malkin’s salary on the season’s opening night. It can become quite the two-step.
Still, staying under the cap by then shouldn’t be quite as tricky. Gary Bettman has said the league should escape its Covid-induced immovable ceiling in the next year or two, and certainly, three or four years down the line should see the cap jumping in the amounts we had gotten used to before 2020.
Perhaps the Pens are jittery about how Malkin will age, considering he’s had two major knee surgeries. He came off one of them last year and played about half the season. Malkin is hardly a complete player, but he’s still very much a dominant offensive one. He still averaged a point per game coming off that knee operation, and his metrics such as shot attempts per game or individual expected goals were pretty much in line with what he’s done throughout his career. You can easily accept the school of thought that the farther he gets away from his latest surgery, the better off he’ll be. But then again, the farther he gets away from that the more into his late 30s he’ll be as well. What’s the balance there?
Still, we’re talking about one season here on a contract. What’s the plan if they’ve set off Malkin to the point that he could genuinely leave? The Pens have about $10 million in space, with some forward spots to fill, as Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues remain unsigned as well. Any fantasy of upgrading from Malkin at this age to Nazem Kadri at his is spoiled by realizing that Kadri is likely to eat up most of that cap space. Vinny Trocheck creates a little more offensively, but doesn’t bury nearly as many of those chances, and how much cheaper is he really going to be? There isn’t much else out there.
As for Malkin, if he isn’t going to get four years from the Pens that he so desires, where would he? Certainly, there are a lot of teams licking their chops at the thought of pilfering a Penguins team that has pretty much lorded over all except for a select few for a decade and a half, but is that prudent? Do the Rangers want to replace Ryan Strome with him? That would keep Malkin on a Cup-contending team (even if they’re actually frauds). But the Blueshirts have the same amount of cap space as the Pens and more forwards to re-sign or bring in. If Patrice Bergeron retires, the Bs have a huge hole, but that retirement might indicate it’s time for a whole new era in Boston. Colorado likes to big game hunt, but with Nathan MacKinnon approaching his boffo extension, they can’t commit four years to him. Does Malkin really want to live in Calgary? Malkin lives in South Florida in the offseason, but the Panthers don’t have any cap space. The Islanders could use a center, but does he want to play that style? And also Lou Lamoriello would lose his vampire card if he signed anyone to this kind of money at this age.
Malkin and the Penguins can’t really do better than each other, and either side trying to find other solutions starting tomorrow is going to find that out.