Penguins Have 7 Interesting Options Should Kris Letang Leave Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in a tough spot this offseason as general manager (GM) Ron Hextall has his work cut out for him with a number of big-name free agents set to hit the open market. Defenseman Kris Letang may be the biggest piece of them all as the Penguins’ legend still has a ton of game left and desires to play for four or five more seasons. Hockey insider Elliotte Friedman recently shared he believes the Penguins offered an in-season extension of a four-year deal at just under $7 million per season, but no agreement was reached.

It would be great to see Pittsburgh have all of their team return next season, but the business of a hard salary cap can make operations tough at times. While the Penguins will surely have a great shot at getting Letang to stay, as Pittsburgh is where his heart lies, the Montreal Canadiens and his old agent Kent Hughes will be waiting by the phone lines on July 13 when free agency opens. If Letang does indeed leave, let’s examine seven options for the Penguins to replace his minutes.

John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins

Let’s start internally and the Penguins have a good one in John Marino. The Harvard grad has shown he has all the tools to be a No. 1 defenseman at some point and time in his career; is now the time? He is under a great contract at $4.4 million annually through the 2026-27 season and is coming off a season where he was third on the team in ice-time per game.

John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins
John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Marino is going to indeed be “the guy,” he’s going to see his ice time creep up a couple of minutes and he’ll get a longer look on the power play as he only averaged 0:55 in 2021-22, meanwhile Letang averaged 3:28. There’s no doubt that the bigger role for Marino would include playing more on special teams and that’s likely why fans would see a spike in his offensive production after a decent season with 25 points in 81 games.

Related: 3 Pittsburgh Penguins Not Expected Back Next Season

Comparing the two career paths, Letang’s third full season in the league saw him post 27 points and it wasn’t until his fourth season in Pittsburgh where his ice time spiked and his production went way up to 50 points. Perhaps we see the exact same learning curve for Marino as he enters his fourth season in 2022-23.

Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks

The trade route would be interesting for Hextall and company because of the fact Pittsburgh has so many pending free agents that management may not want to also part with some young assets. If they decide a trade partner is needed, the Vancouver Canucks make a ton of sense as president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin know the Penguins’ system better than anyone. Both executives spent a number of seasons in Pittsburgh and a deal between the two clubs this summer makes a ton of sense with defenseman Tyler Myers being involved. Rutherford recently mentioned to Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli, the club would love to create some more salary cap flexibility this offseason.

Hextall would be adding some serious size with the towering 6-foot-8 blueliner, and the good news is there’s some cost-savings, as he makes less than Letang at $6 million and is signed for two more seasons. While Myers had a full no-trade clause, it goes down to only 10 teams of his choice on July 1, making it much more likely to be moved.

While this addition wouldn’t necessarily be replacing apples with apples, the Penguins wouldn’t need to worry about that as Marino could easily step up into the top pair and Myers can hang back on the second pair with Michael Matheson or Brian Dumoulin.

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks are willing to listen on both Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, with Burns being the much likelier defenseman to be moved. The Sharks are looking to clean up their financials and having two expensive right-handed defensemen who need a ton of ice time just hasn’t worked out to this point in southern California.

Brent Burns San Jose Sharks
Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Burns makes a decent buck at $8 million per season and is signed through the 2024-25 season when he’ll be 40 years old. He’s a very similar player to Letang as his offensive game speaks for itself and sometimes on defense, they both leave their head coach scratching his head. Burns finished this past season with 54 points in 82 games and he’s a work horse who keeps his body in amazing shape.

The focal point here is two things, money and interest level. Burns has no-trade protection where he only approves trades to three teams, so at this point we don’t know if Pittsburgh would make the list. His $8 million annual salary is too rich for the Penguins to endure, so there would need to be at least $1 million salary retained to the Sharks’ books. Lots of variables involved but if Hextall wants to replace Letang’s game, there may not be a better option at the moment.

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild

While the Penguins have some big personnel decisions to make this summer, the Minnesota Wild are in a much tougher spot as general manager Bill Guerin has over $12.7 million in dead cap space to worry about thanks to expensive buyouts for both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. That brings us to defenseman Matt Dumba and his $6 million cap hit and perhaps the two teams complete a deal. In 2021-22, Dumba recorded 27 points in 57 games and he’s shown in the past he has 50-point seasons in his game.

Matt Dumba Minnesota Wild
Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dumba doesn’t play as offensively as Letang, but he’d give the Penguins another solid veteran for their top four and their games are very similar when it comes to hits and blocked shots. The Wild defender is signed for next season at $6 million, giving Hextall more business to worry about in the future but someone who could fill in admirably for 2022-23. With the Wild’s cap constraints this summer and with their holes to fill, Guerin could be looking to move on from Dumba and his cap hit, and Hextall should be ready, willing and interested.

Penguins Have Free-Agent Options to Also Consider

While the trade route is a possibility, the Penguins will also have a few options who may be worth considering on the free-agent market. For starters, P.K. Subban is expected to be available come July 13 and is a reasonable option. Sure, his best days are behind him, but so are his more expensive seasons.

P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
P.K. Subban and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The 33-year-old will not be making $9 million annually on his next contract and perhaps the Penguins could come in at three years at $4 million and get his attention. In 2021-22, Subban recorded 22 points in 77 games, seeing 18:14 of ice time a game.

John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars is going to be directly linked to Letang this summer as the two defensemen are the best of the bunch for righthanders. Klingberg may be out of reach when it comes to the Penguins’ salary cap worries as he’s expected to get a hefty raise from his $4.25 million annual salary. If Pittsburgh is going to let Letang walk if he becomes too expensive, it’s doubtful management would then replace the legend with someone else who is just as expensive. It feels like Dallas and Klingberg work something out at this point.

The last option of the bunch is someone who Hextall loves in Colorado Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson. He’s a physical specimen who spent eight seasons with the Anaheim Ducks before being moved to Mile High before this season’s trade deadline.

Josh Manson Colorado Avalanche
Josh Manson, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Manson is someone who loves to deliver bone crushing hits and his offensive game still has some areas for development, but has taken huge strides, especially since arriving in Colorado. Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic has over $25 million in cap space to work with this summer, but has goaltender Darcy Kuemper, center Nazem Kadri and the likes of Manson and several others who need contracts for next season.

Everyone won’t be back for the Avalanche, so perhaps the Penguins will inquire on Manson’s services and add some sandpaper to their blue line this offseason. He loves to lay huge hits, block shots, and doesn’t mind throwing hands to protect himself and his teammates. Manson made $4.1 million per season on his last deal, perhaps something over $5 million gets his attention. That figure may be too rich for Hextall’s blood, but it’s certainly another option to consider for the Penguins’ general manager.

There we have it folks, seven interesting options for Penguins management to consider if Letang leaves via free agency. At this point it feels like it’s either Pittsburgh or Montreal for the veteran defenseman, and if he does indeed walk away from his legacy, look for one of these seven names to replace his minutes next season and beyond.

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