The 2021-22 NHL season is one that has yielded resounding success thus far for the Pittsburgh Penguins–currently standing at first place in the Metropolitan Division (70 points) ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and NY Rangers, with 68 and 66 points respectively.
Coming off the All-Star Break of this year’s NHL campaign, it remains uncertain which Eastern Conference juggernaut is most likely to take the division crown, especially with the powerhouse Washington Capitals creeping their way up the standings as well. Among this rigorous competition, another concern for Pittsburgh remains the withering contracts of generational talents Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
Impact of the Dynamic Trio of Crosby, Malkin & Letang
It doesn’t take a 200-point hockey IQ to know who is being referred to as Pittsburgh’s “Big Three.” If there’s one thing Penguins fans (and their front office, for that matter) are worried about, it’s losing two of their bonafide superstars to free agency. Forward Evgeni “Gino” Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang have helped form a dynasty around captain Sidney Crosby since 2007, marking 2021-22 as the 16th consecutive season they’ve played alongside one another–the longest tenure for a trio in NHL history.
The spotlight shines on 500-goal scorer Crosby as the team’s leader, but many of his earned accolades have come from assistance by one of the NHL’s most outstanding support staff. Malkin has spent his time in Pittsburgh tearing up the league as one of the world’s greatest goal scorers as Letang solidified his role as a franchise offensive-defenseman complete with a fast and overly-effective backcheck. In those 15 previous seasons, the established play of these phenoms has planted three Stanley Cups in the city of champions. Together, they have combined for five All-Star appearances, two Art Ross Trophies, and a Hart Memorial Trophy during their tenure with the Penguins.
Money Talks For Malkin & Letang
Crosby’s infamous contract (12 years/$104.4M) is ongoing – lasting through the 2024-25 NHL season. Malkin and Letang, on the other hand, have some signing to do as both are set to become unrestricted free agents (UFA) at the end of the season.
The cessation of Malkin (8 years/$76 million) and Letang’s (8 years/$58 million) respective contracts come at a rather inconvenient time for general manager (GM) Ron Hextall, as the team has developed and acquired other high-calibre players whose contributions deserve proper compensation too. Veteran forward Jeff Carter recently signed a two-year extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.125 million, bolstering the Penguins’ depth with size. Among other UFAs are forwards Bryan Rust and Evan Rodrigues, who have absolutely blossomed offensively under the reigns of coach Mike Sullivan, valiantly stepping into bigger roles in light of a loaded injured reserve (IR) list and positive COVID tests.
Hextall has stated his apparent desire to keep Malkin and Letang in Pittsburgh, and they have both reiterated their own inclinations to stay. Unfortunately, the weight of eight other UFAs (including backup goaltender Casey DeSmith) poses a financial concern for their front office. Both of them will be expecting handsome numbers after their benefactions to the team’s history, but signs point to enduring pay cuts if they want to remain with the team. With the NHL’s trade deadline steadily approaching in March, to whom Hextall decides to allocate cap space (and how much) is yet to be seen.
Streaks & Struggles Dot the Penguins’ 2021-22 Season
The Penguins, while still a first-place force to be reckoned with, have endured patchy streaks of success and failure. Despite coming out with a point each time, 3-on-3 overtime has proven to be a growing issue regarding the team’s ability to finish–with eight of their 20 losses occurring after regulation.
Furthermore, the All-Star Break has marked a noticeable increase in the Penguins’ strength of schedule. Amid the fears of what free agency may bring are the recent formations of other outstanding squads in the Eastern Conference, with a resurgence from the Hurricanes, Panthers, and Lightning. These concerns may constitute some changes within the team’s structure, as their dynastic window is rapidly closing. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have grounded themselves as some of hockey’s greatest – but their chance to leave a legacy of additional Stanley Cups is dwindling as the seasons continue to go by.