It is hard to think about the Pittsburgh Penguins without Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin coming to mind. They have played together with captain Sidney Crosby for the past 16 years, and are among the most elite players in the National Hockey League. However, that could all be coming to an end this summer if the Penguins are unable to reach contract agreements with both sides before they become free agents in July. Can the team work out favorable terms for two of their best players, and if not, is there anyone who could realistically fill their shoes?
Malkin was drafted second overall in the 2004 NHL draft, and it is safe to say the Penguins got that pick right. He has been a constant on the second line and helped bring the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017. He has expressed a desire to finish out his career with the Penguins, and all fans can do now is wait and hope that he gets his wish.
At 35 years old, Malkin is in the latter part of his hockey career, so it’s likely both sides have already agreed to a 3 – 4 year term. The financial piece of the contract puzzle is probably where negotiations have stalled. His camp could be asking for more than the Penguins are willing to give due to his injury history. It is likely that in order to reach a deal both sides are going to have to bend.
However, if the Penguins are looking to contend for the Stanley Cup next season can they really afford not to bring Malkin back? The answer is a simple no. The fact is there is no other player who is currently on the free-agent market who can do what Malkin does. His average ice time per game this season was 18:20 and 3:46 on the power play.
Vincent Trocheck of the Carolina Hurricanes has been a name thrown around as a possible Malkin replacement as he will become a free agent in July as well. Trocheck had 21 goals and 51 points this season, and his average ice time per game was 17:52. He is probably as close as the Penguins could get to matching Malkin’s skill set.
New York Rangers center Ryan Strome is another possible replacement for Malkin as he will also be hitting the unrestricted free agent market in a few weeks. He ended the season with 21 goals and 54 points.
The Penguins have been in negotiations with Letang’s camp since the season ended, and more than likely the discussions have been centered around the term of the contract. At 35 years old, the big question is how many years does he have left? He just finished seventh in the race for the Norris Trophy, an award given to the NHL’s top defenseman, and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. This season he averaged 25:47 minutes of ice time per game.
As much as the fans would love to see both players back next season, the Penguins should prioritize getting Letang’s contract done first. They could potentially replace Malkin with a decent second-line center, but there would be no such replacement for Letang. What he brings to the table is far too valuable, and without him on the roster next season the team would be extremely mediocre.
The Penguins are in a very delicate spot with their cap situation. They currently have $23.2 million in cap space, but with the other contracts, they need to get done that will fill up rapidly. They of course have the option of moving money to try and free up space by trading players such as Brian Dumoulin or Jason Zucker. However, with Dumoulin currently rehabbing a knee injury with no clear picture of when he will be able to resume play, that trade is unlikely.
The only thing that is certain at this point is on July 13 Malkin and Letang will officially be unrestricted free agents. The Penguins will have to finalize some big decisions in the next few weeks, and finally answer the question about the future of their core.
My name is Sylvie McCarthy and I am a graduate of the University of North Florida. I have spent time as a sports writer for the Casper Star Tribune in Casper, Wyoming and the Picayune Item in Picayune, Mississippi. Sports is my passion, and I am so excited to be writing for The Hockey Writers where I will be covering the Pittsburgh Penguins.