Making a Case for Dealing Kris Letang at this Year’s NHL Draft

 

Well, Ray Shero certainly didn’t waste any time getting a jump on what could be a difficult summer for the Pittsburgh GM.  After extending Dan Bylsma’s contract earlier this week, it was announced on Thursday that Shero had agreed to terms with superstar Evgeni Malkin on an eight year, $76 million contract extension.  Less than a week after the Penguins’ season came to a shocking end, Ray answered the question about who will be behind the Pittsburgh bench next season and insured that Malkin will share the ice with Sidney Crosby for nearly another decade.  And, with as exciting as that is for Pens’ fans, it very well may signal the end of Kris Letang’s time with the club.  At least, it should.

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Letang has one year left on his current contract but, like Malkin, became eligible for an extension following the 2013 season.  It is believed that Kris hopes to, at minimum, double his $3.5 million dollar salary and desires a long-term deal, at least five years in term.  While Shero has publicly stated that he’d love to keep “Tanger” beyond the coming season, it’s something that simply doesn’t make sense in this salary cap era.  Because, despite what Milan Lucic will tell you, the Pittsburgh Penguins are not the Miami Heat and this isn’t the NBA – you can’t build a squad that will contend year in and year out around a “Big Three”.  But signing Letang to an extension would essentially provide the Penguins with just that.  Think about it: if Crosby’s $8.7 million and Malkin’s $9.5 million cap hits are combined, the total will constitute 28.3% of the $64.3 million salary cap for the coming season.  Now, Malkin’s hit won’t go into effect until the following year when the cap will almost assuredly rise but the extra funds won’t be enough to keep Letang’s potential $7 million salary from combining with Crosby and Malkin’s to comprise roughly a third of the Penguins’ cap space.

Clearly, that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to build the balance of a hockey club.  So, what option does Shero have but to trade his Norris Trophy nominated defenseman?  Because you can rest assured that the savvy Pittsburgh GM won’t let Letang walk without getting something in return.  Just ask Jordan Staal.

Trade Deadline Deal

If Shero truly believes he has a shot at retaining Letang, he could hold onto him for the time being given that Kris, as mentioned above, has one more year on his deal.  If an extension isn’t imminent as the season begins to wind down, Shero could always move the smooth skating blue liner at the trade deadline.  That would both buy Shero some time in hopes of selling Letang on staying and, worst case scenario, prevent Kris from walking without Pittsburgh getting something in return.  But there are a couple of problems with that plan.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

First, imagine you are Dan Bylsma.  All season, you’ve had a thoroughbred eating up nearly 30 minutes a game on your blue line, logging more time on the ice than anyone else on the club.  He plays against the opponents top players, kills penalties and logs power play time on the first unit.  Now, as the squad prepares for the home stretch, he’s gone.  Traded.  How do you replace that?  Hope the deal brings a suitable replacement?  Fill the role by committee and start using one of the many defensive prospects that has waited patiently but still lacks experience?  Clearly, it’s not an ideal spot for a coach to be in as such a significant move would leave the club with little time to adjust to such a major change to the lineup.

What’s more, in putting the deal off, Shero runs the risk of lessening his return on Letang.  While there are very few clubs that would sneeze at acquiring Kris, some may view a deadline deal for him as a rental in order to make a run at the Cup or, at the very least, worry about their chances of preventing the star from testing free agency.  That being the case, clubs might be willing to give up less to obtain him.  While it may turn out to ultimately be an non-issue, it’s certainly a possibility.  Simply put, the longer Shero waits, the greater chance he has of painting himself into a corner.

 

NHL Draft Day Deal

Despite the sting that dealing a Norris Trophy finalist this summer would cause the organization, it’s probably the best thing for the club’s long-term future.  While no one player will replace Letang or the minutes he eats up, Paul Martin will ease the pain after taking great strides toward becoming the player Shero envisioned when he brought him to Pittsburgh.  Furthermore, the Penguins have a plethora of young talent along the blue line, some of which may contribute at the highest level next year.  And the club looks to be ready to give at least a few of those kids a shot, as illustrated by Bylsma’s surprise endorsement of Simon Depres as a top-four defenseman for next season.  Add in the fact that Robert Bortuzzo will be given a chance to crack the top-six while Brian Dumoulin appears close to a promotion and one may conclude that the Penguins may just be capable of getting by without Letang.  But, to be successful, those prospects need a shot; they need to adjust to the rigors of a full NHL campaign, not to be thrown to the wolves in the latter parts of the season should Letang be moved at, say the trade deadline.  If they can grow and mature in Pittsburgh for an entire season, the have a much better opportunity to be successful.

Pascal Dupuis

(Icon SMI)

Perhaps more importantly, dealing Letang may provide an opportunity for Shero to retain arguably his most versatile player.  Pascal Dupuis is a tenacious winger, an incredible penalty killer, has evolved into a consistent 20 goal scorer…and is line for a huge raise.  The free agent, coming off a deal that paid him $1.5 million, could reportedly command $5 million on the open market, a number that Shero may have difficulty matching.  But with Dupuis indicating how much he and his family would like to remain in the Penguins’ family and Pittsburgh community, he may be willing to give the Pens a hometown discount.  So, depending on the return on a potential Letang deal, shedding his $3.5 million salary could provide that little bit extra Shero needs to keep Dupuis on Sidney Crosby’s wing.

The greatest reason to move Letang sooner rather than later, though, comes from what the Penguins have to look forward to at the 2013 draft: not much.  That’s because Pittsburgh doesn’t own a selection in the first two rounds of what is considered to be a very special class:

“When I look at these players, I see elite No. 1 centers, top-end scoring wingers and solid No. 2 centers.  That doesn’t end in the first round. It goes right through the second.”- TSN scout, Craig Button

That has to be very enticing for Shero given that the Pens are as thin in the pipeline at the forward position as they are deep along the blue line.  Indeed, outside of Beau Bennett, the Penguins don’t have any new blood on the verge of making an impact as a forward at the NHL level.  Combine that with the fact that the Penguins only have six players under contract after the coming season and it’s easy to see why Shero may be eager to restock the cupboard.  And any return on a deal involving Letang would provide Ray with that very opportunity.

Yes, in the short-term, moving Kris Letang will be painful for the Penguins and the club’s fan base.  He is a world-class talent and will likely bring home a Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman at some point, if not this year.  But, at the same time, the Penguins blue line is likely the deepest aspect of their club; they have more pressing needs than retaining Kris.  Rather than financially handcuffing the club by extending the contract of the last of “The Big Three”, Shero needs to move “Tanger”  at the draft in order to set the club up for the immediate and long-term future.  Maybe, then, Ray can finally relax and take a vacation.

 

Sean Griffin

Sean Griffin

Sean Griffin is a lead writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Hockey Writers. He can be contacted at psgrif27@gmail.com.

9 Comments

  1. Though I absolutely agree with the article, I wish you would have torn Letang apart more. He’s a turnover machine who makes horrible decisions with the puck and yet is given the keys to the offense and breakout. Moreover, he has no idea how to clear the net, properly tie sticks, or especially play any semblance of proper defensive positioning, a common theme of players ‘coached’ by Bylsma. (But…but…he can SKATE! OOOOOH!)

    The Penguins will be absolutely fine without Letang–better, actually. Martin has become comfortable and is better at everything I’ve knocked Letang for, and by a long shot. He will improve the power play and defense by filling the time Letang spent on them. I’ll basically echo your point on defenseman prospects: they’ll step in and be fine, with some growing pains, of course.

    Most importantly, because Letang has no sort of clause inhibiting Shero’s ability to deal him, the return should be better than the ransom Shero got for Jordan Staal. He could easily get a mid-first pick, an NHL defenseman, a high-end forward prospect, and maybe even another mid-round pick or roster player.

    It’s just a no-brainer to trade Letang at the draft.

    • Sean Griffin says:

      Wow, big Letang fan, huh? I agree with a lot of what you say but can also see the value in him. He didn’t have a great playoff but still leads defensemen in scoring. He was AWFUL againt Boston but, outside of Vokoun, the Bruins made everyone look bad in that series. He does use his wheels to try to make up for those mental mistakes you mention but that speed makes him as dynamic as any blue liner in the game.

      This article, though, wasn’t supposed to be so much a critique on his game as it was an illustration of why now is the time to deal him. It’ll be much better for the club to get as much for him at the draft and move on rather than see how things play out until the deadline.

      Like you said, they can get bu without him. Martin is a more than capable replacement on the power play and the turn around his game saw this season should allow him to take on a bigger role. Don’t think he can handle all the minutes Letang eats up but, with Depres ready to step up and some of the other kids close, they should be able to fill those minutes by committee (and that’s before any potential return). There might be some growing pains but it’ll ultimately allow Shero to use a position of strength to improve the club’s weaker components.

      Oh, and thanks for reading!

  2. Ty Eggemeyer says:

    If they sign Letang to a $7 million deal, then Letang, Crosby and Malkin will constitute 39% of the projected 2014-2015 salary cap. They won’t be able to field a team. They may do a sign and trade deal but Letang wants a no trade clause. This isn’t going to happen. There is NO WAY they sign and KEEP Kris Letang. Simon Despres would have been better in the playoffs anyway as Letang is a defensive liability and Martin plays better on the power play. He is gone…..whether you like it or not. Goodbye Kris

  3. Should’ve dealt Malkin for the Avs/Panthers pick and draft Mackinnon for a much cheaper 1-2 punch. Could’ve then kept Letang and resigned Dupuis. Instead they’ll be the Lightning with 2 guys battling for the Art Ross but still miss the playoffs.

    • Sean Griffin says:

      Couldnt disagree more. Malkin’s game has its blemishes but, given the other defensemen in the organization, Malkin is much more valuable to the club. And, if they move Letang now, they have a better shot at keeping Dupuis. They are no where near the position the Bolts have been in. Obviously wont win the East every year but they wont be missing the playoffs either.

  4. Love the article. It is obvious the Penguins lack offensive depth within the organization. It is also obvious that giving Letang the money he wants will eat enough cap space to couse problems in the future, especially in filling needs at the deadline and through free agency. Trading him before the draft will bring a very hefty return, adding depth on the front end (if that’s what they trade for/draft) and leave him room to work his magic in the future. Hopefully Ray thinks like we do!

    • Sean Griffin says:

      Appreciate it, Tim. Definitely be interesting to see what Shero does. Will be an interesting summer.

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