PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall said he wanted to find a way to ensure Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang stay with the club for the rest of their careers.
“In a perfect world, [Malkin] pull out a penguin,” Hextall said Monday. “And I think Tangier is the same.”
In a perfect world, anyway.
The NHL in the age of the salary cap is hardly that.
Perhaps that’s why, when Hextall was asked what was missing this season from a group that squandered a 3-1 lead in a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, he said. joked that “a little more ceiling space would be great.”
He does not understand.
The Penguins usually spent to the limit during the hugely successful era led by Malkin, Letang and longtime captain Sidney Crosby. That “spend to earn now” approach isn’t going to change with Fenway Sports Group 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 entering free agency for the first time.
Letang barely seems to have lost a step. The defender is coming off a season in which he collected a career-high 68 points while playing a little more responsibly on his own side. He averaged a staggering 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 finishing a contract that paid him $7.25 million per season. Given his fitness level and production, it’s reasonable to assume he would ask for a slight raise on the open market, although Letang said last week that his preference would be to find a way to stay in Pittsburgh. .
Malkin feels the same way, but his situation is trickier. He said ‘good players sign good contracts’ last week, and although he has scored 20 goals this season he has missed nearly half of the year as he recovers from a torn ACL in his right knee, he wasn’t particularly effective in 5-on-5 situations. while commanding $9.5 million. He will also turn 36 in July and has missed at least 10 games through injury nine times in his last 10 seasons.
Hextall stressed that he would not provide details on the nature of the team’s discussions with Malkin and Letang, but hinted that he was not concerned about their ages.
“They’re both great athletes,” he said. “They’ve both been here a long time. They’re both performing at a high level right now. We’d definitely like to have them in the mix come September.”
Malkin and Letang’s respective statuses are the two biggest pieces of a very complex puzzle that Hextall must piece together over the summer. Forwards Evan Rodrigues, Brian Boyle, Rickard Rakell and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith are set to become free agents, while forwards Danton Heinen and the enigmatic Kasperi Kapanen are restricted free agents.
Hextall locked in a piece of the puzzle, signing forward Bryan Rust to a six-year deal over the weekend that will keep the versatile two-time Stanley Cup winner in the fold until 2028. Rust, who has has 24 goals and 34 assists this season, recently suffered what Hextall called a minor knee operation, but should be ready well before training camp.
By then, Hextall will have some clarity on their team’s immediate future. He indicates he has it in his immediate past, praising the Penguins for their resilience during a turbulent season that included extended absences from Crosby and Malkin and a COVID-19 outbreak. Pittsburgh managed to extend its playoff streak to 16 straight years, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
Yet the Penguins also haven’t made it through the first round since 2018. That’s not the norm 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, including to the front office. Hextall, who took over in February 2021 following the abrupt resignation of Jim Rutherford, appears to have an opportunity to guide the team through at least the early twilight stages of Crosby’s Hall of Fame career.
“It’s okay,” Hextall said. “[Fenway Sports Group is] totally determined to win. … We have some things that we are looking at in terms of adding staff and other things. We move forward.”
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