Following their first-round playoff series loss to the New York Rangers, there has been a swirling discussion of what will happen to the core of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Many referred to this postseason run as “the last dance” for the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. With both Malkin and Letang being unrestricted free agents (UFA) this offseason, should the Penguins move on from the group that has brought them three Stanley Cups? From a financial standpoint, it makes more sense to re-sign the two veterans as opposed to replacing them.
Heading into the 2022-23 season, Malkin will be 36 years of age and is clearly not the player he used to be. There has been a clear decline in his game judging from his past production. The most glaring stat is his play at 5-on-5, notching only 18 points in 41 games this season. Although, just because Malkin needs a new contract, it doesn’t mean he needs to be paid for the player that he was. Even at the current stage of his career, he is a point-per-game player and someone who can dictate the play offensively. When adjusting his stats to a full 82-game season, he would have placed in the top-25 in NHL scoring this year.
If Malkin is willing to take less than his past cap hit of $9.5 million per year, the Penguins should certainly negotiate a new contract. The term is important for an aging veteran as well, so three years would probably be the sweet spot, which would also expire at the same time as Crosby’s in 2025. The fair amount for both parties would be a deal starting at $21 million over three years. This would put his cap hit at $7 million annually and leave the team with room to re-sign some of their many other UFAs. The most similar contract situation that Malkin’s relates to would be that of Joe Pavelski after leaving the San Jose Sharks. At the time, Pavelski was a 35-year-old player who signed a three-year contract for $7 million per season. His production mirrored that of Malkin, still producing at a point-per-game pace.
Most importantly, the Penguins will not find another center capable of Malkin’s production for anywhere near that price. The most comparable centers from a numbers standpoint would be the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad and the Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho. Both players have an annual cap hit of $8.5 million, with the only difference being that they are currently in their prime. This makes for a unique, but also favorable situation for the Penguins, as Malkin is not in his prime, but still providing the same level of play as them. They can take advantage of this circumstance, and sign him for less money but get the same production. The reality is that if the Penguins do try to replace Malkin, it will probably cost them more than simply re-signing him.
The situation the Penguins face with Letang is troublesome, as he is coming off a career-high season in points, but is also a UFA. Letang remains one of the NHL’s best defensemen and will be even harder to replace than Malkin. His previous annual cap hit was $7.25 million per year, which was already a good bargain considering his production in relation to the salaries of other top defensemen. In 2022, Letang was the 23rd highest-paid defenseman in the NHL, but produced 0.87 points per game. He also logged an average of 25:47 minutes of ice time per game, which was fourth in the entire league. To replace Letang at his previous price would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
The Penguins would need to find another elite number one defenseman should they decide to let Letang walk. This replacement would play the most minutes on the team, as well as on the top defensive pair, while being the quarterback on the power-play and penalty kill. There is simply no way they can find someone of this caliber without paying more. The market for that type of defenseman has gone up significantly since Letang signed his previous contract in 2013. Players fitting that description are now far more expensive, with the top ten highest-paid defensemen in the NHL all earning over $9 million annually.
Even re-signing Letang to the same annual contract of $7.25 million would be fair to him and the team, while just adjusting the term. They can also use the three-year model with him, as it seems both Letang and Malkin would like to finish their careers out with Crosby. That deal would consist of $21.75 million in total over the next three seasons. After the signing of forward Bryan Rust, the Penguins currently have $23,958,158 million of free cap space to use. With these potential deals for Letang and Malkin totaling a $14.25 million cap hit per year, they would still have over $9 million left over to use on their other pending UFA’s.
If the Penguins do replace Malkin and Letang, they can’t afford to pay similar players more, so they will end up getting lesser quality ones to fill their roles. This would significantly hurt the team’s chances to win in their few remaining years left with Crosby. Therefore, re-signing both of them for the next three seasons would not only be better for the organization financially, but also ensure that the team remains a potential cup contender for the rest of the Crosby-era.
My name is Ray Lindow and I am a recent graduate of Duquesne University. I have spent almost my entire life playing and following hockey. My passion for the game runs deep, and I could not be happier to be writing for The Hockey Writers and covering the Pittsburgh Penguins.