Penguins’ Offseason Complicated by Malkin’s Murky Future

There isn’t much to be said about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offseason priorities that hasn’t already been said. Two of the team’s most popular and era-defining players seemed to be on the way out as their contracts were slated to come to an end when the NHL’s free agency period begins on July 13. One of those icons is forward Evgeni Malkin, who’s 18 years of loyal service in the black and gold may be officially over. Penguins’ management has previously expressed extreme interest in bringing him back, but the situation is more complicated than it seems.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Malkin’s pedigree as a three-time champion and a talented scorer means he will be a highly sought-after commodity, and he’ll definitely attract interest from the league’s best teams when free agency officially begins. As such, general manager (GM) Ron Hextall and company will need to act fast if his retention is truly a priority.

Hextall Unwilling to Compromise to Retain a Franchise Legend

As the NHL free agency period approaches, it’s wise to look at where the contract talks between Malkin’s representation and the Penguins currently stand. Since the season ended on May 15, discussions have not evolved past the initial stage and the parties have not seen eye to eye thus far. Josh Yohe of The Athletic, in a series of conversations with players and agents, has said Hextall has become increasingly difficult to deal with, and the Penguins have seemingly framed the whole process as unserious, as it appears they’re not interested in retaining Malkin’s services at all. (From “What I’m hearing about the Penguins: Malkin, Letang, Hextall, Trocheck and J.T. Miller.”, The Athletic, 28/06/22).

Ron Hextall Pittsburgh Penguins
Ron Hextall, GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Evan Schall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Rather, Hextall and others in the Penguins’ management team have set extremely specific expectations around Malkin’s hypothetical new contract. They have said directly that getting a deal done for him is a more difficult process than first thought, with Hextall noting:

“We said right from the start, we’d like to bring (Malkin) back, and strongly believe that he wants to come back. We’ll continue to work at it and hopefully come to an agreement.”

Penguins’ general manager Ron Hextall on the progress of the Evgeni Malkin contract negotiations. (From “Penguins GM Ron Hextall ‘chipping away’ at new contract for forward Evgeni Malkin”, Seth Rorabaugh. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. 08/07/22.)

Related: Penguins Have 3 Interesting Free-Agent Options to Replace Evgeni Malkin

While it is important to consider the Penguins’ cap situation in their desire to re-sign Malkin, it is also important to note that Malkin himself has said of his willingness to take a pay cut to return to Pittsburgh. Not only has he said this recently, but he has also stated this as early as Jan. 2022.

Letang’s Contract Could Make Malkin’s Return More Likely

Now, all of this wouldn’t necessarily matter if Kris Letang was still un-signed. However, the Penguins announced on July 7 that they had signed him to a six-year, $36.6 million contract extension, keeping the defenceman as a Penguin until 2028, the year he turns 41. Malkin himself was extremely happy to hear of Letang’s extension, even going so far as to joke about potentially having to play against him in future seasons. He took to Instagram to congratulate Letang on his new deal and immediately set about on a campaign for an extension for Kasperi Kapanen, another of the Penguins’ free agent forwards.

Kris Letang Pittsburgh Penguins
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After Letang signed his deal, it was revealed that he intentionally structured the contract so that the Penguins would have enough room to re-sign Malkin without endangering their cap situation. At the 2022 NHL Entry Draft in Montréal, Letang met with reporters and explained how he’d love to see Malkin return just as he did.

“I kind of said, ‘I hope you get this done soon so we keep it all together.’ … It was more of a contract to fit both parties: give a chance to the Penguins to sign other players and also based on performance and what I did in the last few years. Make sure we can still compete and win and not take a big chunk.”

Kris Letang on how his contract extension should pave the way for the Penguins to sign Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin’s Representatives Asking for A Lot

To say that the issues between Malkin’s camp and Penguins’ management are exclusively one-sided would be inaccurate, as Hextall originally offered what many thought was a reasonable contract when the Pens’ season ended. Shortly after they were eliminated by the Rangers, Hextall sent the Penguins’ legend a two-year, $6 million contract with subsequent negotiations successfully upping the term from two years to three. However, there was a considerable amount of time between their initial offer and the time they agreed to increase the term, at least a few weeks.

Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In fact, Malkin’s agent, J.P. Barry, has only been involved in “tepid talks” with Penguins management, as each round of negotiations – at least to this point – hasn’t yielded the outcome either party has hoped for. Salary is no longer the issue, it is now the length of contract Malkin desires that the Penguins won’t bite on. Management doesn’t want to commit to a longer-term deal, likely given his age and recent injury history. He interpreted these beliefs, although implicit, as a signal that the team was low-balling him and refusing to make him a priority.

Penguins’ Relationship with Cap Ceiling an Important Factor

Although one could reasonably make the argument that Penguins’ management ostensibly ignoring Malkin and his personal relationship and history with the franchise is wrong (and it is), from their view, they’re approaching negotiations as they would with any other player. This means taking into account contracts they’ve already given out to other pending free agents. Forward Bryan Rust and backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, along with Letang, have all received new deals, but the team still needs to figure out the futures of players like Danton Heinen and Evan Rodrigues as well as top prospects like Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who are all pending free agents.

Evan Rodrigues Pittsburgh Penguins
Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Currently, the Penguins have $15 million in cap space remaining and two days to decide who to bring back and for how much. It’s not likely that they will have enough room to bring back everyone, creating extremely difficult decisions for management, especially given Joseph’s potential and Rodrigues’ stellar performance last season.

While it’s been made abundantly clear that both Malkin’s camp and the Penguins want to see a mutual reunion, what’s less simple is getting the proper contract signed so that he returns. While some have painted it as purely the fault of management wishing to move on from an aging icon, he hasn’t exactly made it easy, and the decision to sign him has implications that may affect the futures of important pieces moving forward.