PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall says he wants to find a way to keep Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang at the club for the rest of their careers.
“In a perfect world, [Malkin] a penguin retires,” Hextall said Monday. “And I think Tangier is the same.”
At least in a perfect world.
The NHL in the salary cap era is hardly that.
Perhaps that’s why, when Hextall was asked what was missing this season from a group that let slip a 3-1 lead in a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, he jokingly said, “A little more room up the cap would be great .”
He doesn’t get it.
The Penguins have regularly spent to cap limit during the hugely successful era spearheaded by Malkin, Letang and longtime captain Sidney Crosby. That “donate to win now” approach won’t change as Fenway Sports Group is now signing the checks after buying the club from Ron Burkle and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux last fall.
The question, however, is how much money the Penguins are willing to offer a pair of 35-year-old franchise icons who are less than two months away from going free for the first time.
Letang hardly seems to have lost a step. The defender is coming off a season in which he amassed a career-high 68 points while playing a little more responsibly on his own end. He averaged an amazing 25 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time and said last week he would like to play at least five more seasons.
Letang is also ending a contract that was making him $7.25 million per season. Given his level of fitness and performance, it’s reasonable to think he’d fetch a small raise in the open market, although Letang said last week he’d prefer to find a way to stay in Pittsburgh.
Malkin feels similar, but his situation is more delicate. He said last week ‘good players sign good contracts’ and despite scoring 20 goals this season despite missing almost half the year while recovering from a cruciate ligament tear in his right knee, he was in 5-a-side 5 situations isn’t particularly effective while he has $9.5 million at his disposal. Also, he turns 36 in July and has missed at least 10 games through injuries nine times in the last 10 seasons.
Hextall insisted he wouldn’t reveal details about the nature of the team’s discussions with Malkin and Letang, but indicated he wasn’t concerned about their age.
“They are both great athletes,” he said. “They’ve both been here for a long time. They’re both playing at a high level right now. We’d certainly like to have them with us in September.”
Malkin and Letang’s respective statuses are the two largest pieces of a very unwieldy puzzle that Hextall must piece together over the course of the summer. Forwards Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle, Rickard Rakell and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith are slated to become free agents, while forwards Danton Heinen and the enigmatic Kasperi Kapanen are restricted free agents.
Hextall completed one piece of the puzzle, signing forward Bryan Rust over the weekend on a six-year deal that will keep the versatile two-time Stanley Cup winner with the team through 2028. Rust, who has 24 goals and 34 assists this season, recently underwent what Hextall called a minor surgery on one of his knees but should be ready well ahead of training camp.
By then, Hextall will have clarity on his team’s immediate future. He states he has it in his immediate past and praises the Penguins for their resilience during an eventful season that included extended absences from Crosby and Malkin and a COVID-19 outbreak. Pittsburgh has managed to extend its playoff streak to 16 straight years, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
But the Penguins haven’t made it past the first round since 2018 either. That’s not the standard for a team playing in an arena with five Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters.
Six months into FSG’s tenure, there seems to be no rush to make drastic changes, even in the front office. Hextall, who took over in February 2021 following Jim Rutherford’s abrupt retirement, appears poised to lead the team at least in the early twilight stages of Crosby’s Hall of Fame career.
“Everything is fine,” said Hextall. “[Fenway Sports Group is] fully committed to victory. … We’ve got some things we’re looking at in terms of ramping up staff and stuff. We’re moving on.”