The Pittsburgh Penguins recently held their end-of-season media availability and one thing was clear, don’t ask the core to buy in to major changes. The Penguins were disappointed as ever with the early playoff exit against the New York Islanders. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang were very stern with their messaging of how they want this core back for another playoff run. Crosby, Letang, and Evgeni Malkin have been teammates for over a decade and they have been through some serious ups and downs together. Their bond is unbreakable and the message now is very clear to management, don’t do anything drastic.
The Core Know it’s Out of Their Control
The future of the Penguins big three is in the hands of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke, but at least the trio can say their intentions were clear. After winning three Stanley Cups together, the pressure that appears to be coming from local media to end this era is piling on, however, it’s all something they have heard before. To this point, it’s just a bunch of white noise and the expectation of a major move is pretty low. Burke and Hextall want to make the team better this offseason, but there is a sense that they understand the history these three players have together and they won’t be the ones to put their name on destroying their legacy.
If you look at this season or specifically at the early playoff exit, at no point could you point a finger of blame at Crosby, Letang or Malkin. It’s plain and simple the goaltender wasn’t good enough in the playoffs and Tristan Jarry will be the first person to tell you he’s going to learn from this experience and come out better on the other end. It was hard to watch at times as bad goaltending can deflate a team quickly, especially in Game 6 when the Penguins couldn’t hold on to three separate leads. Jarry is still only 26, it was his first Stanley Cup playoff run as a number one netminder and while some are already calling for changes in the crease, Letang and company believe in Jarry’s abilities.
Head Coach Mike Sullivan Still Believes in This Penguins Core
Coach Sullivan was also not shying away from the fact he believes in the core. Led by Sullivan and his communication skills, the Penguins have one of the closest groups in the league and a roster full of players that want to play hard for each other. The losses to the Islanders never came down to effort or work ethic and the Penguins coach saw a lot of great things from his group and especially the core. Sullivan feels these are generational talents who can still compete at a high level. If the head coach still believes, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Not necessarily, but the vote of confidence should go a long way this offseason.
This upcoming offseason will be an interesting one for the Penguins as Malkin and Letang are heading into a “contract year” with unrestricted free agency looming. At 34, both players know they are approaching what’s likely their final contracts. If they are making it clear they want to stay and retire together, why not get a couple of extensions done to mirror the end of Crosby’s contract that runs out after the 2024-25 season? It sounds like there could be some common ground to be found where both Malkin and Letang decide to take a little bit less and management agrees to keep them around at the discounted price. It may be a sacrifice worth making and a win-win scenario for everyone involved include Penguins fans.
Malkin’s health could be one of the biggest factors in all of this. He continues to get nicked up and not having him in the lineup early on against the Islanders was a major blow. The Russian star hasn’t played a full 82-game season since 2009 and he’s not getting any younger. The veteran needs to have a successful offseason where he heals his body, gets into better game shape and comes back even stronger next season. Obviously, he had chemistry with wingers Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen and all three should be able to build off the experience and come back even stronger next season.
As for Crosby and Letang, both players had outstanding seasons statistically and continued to prove they are still number one options in this league. Letang especially, as he collected 28 more points than any other Penguins defenseman, after heading into the season with a question mark on his back that John Marino may be taking over. That wasn’t the case at all and six points in six playoff games later, Letang showed he can still get it done when it matters the most.
Penguins management has some decisions to make this offseason, there’s no doubt about that. However, when it comes to Letang, Malkin and Crosby, who are all under contract, not slowing down and wanting to retire together, the attention should be focused on other areas. Hopefully, Burke and Hextall get the message – sometimes less is more.