PITSBURG – Pittsburgh Bats General Manager Ron Hextal has said he wants to find a way to keep Evgeny Malkin and Chris Letang with the club for the rest of their careers.
In a perfect world, [Malkin] “I think Tangiers are the same,” Hextal said on Monday.
In a perfect world, anyway.
The NHL in the era of the maximum salary is not.
Perhaps that’s why, when Hextal was asked what he’s been missing this season from a group that let a 3-1 lead slip away from a first-round loss to the New York Rangers, he joked that “a little bit more space would be great.”
He doesn’t get it.
Penguins used to spend as much as possible during a very successful era led by Malkin, Letang and longtime leader Sidney Crosby. The “spend to win now” approach won’t change with Fenway Sports Group now signing checks after buying the club from Ron Burkle and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux last fall.
The question, however, is how much money Penguins are willing to give to a pair of 35-year-old franchise icons less than two months away from entering a free agency for the first time.
Letang seemed to have barely lost a step. The defender is coming off a season in which he collected a career-high of 68 points while playing with a bit more responsibility towards the end. He averaged 25 minutes 47 seconds of ice time and said last week that he would like to play at least five more seasons.
Letang is also terminating a contract that was paying him $7.25 million per season. Given his fitness level and production, it’s reasonable to believe he will get a small raise on the open market, although Letang said last week that his preference was to find a way to stay in Pittsburgh.
Malkin feels similarly, but his situation is more complicated. He said that “good players sign good contracts” last week, and while he’s scored 20 goals this season despite missing nearly half a year while recovering from a ruptured ACL in his right knee, he hasn’t been particularly effective in 5v5 situations. While he was driving $9.5 million. Also aged 36 in July, he has missed at least 10 matches due to injuries nine times in his past 10 seasons.
Hextal stressed that he would not provide details of the nature of the team’s conversations with Malkin and Letang, but indicated that he was not concerned about their ages.
“They are both great athletes,” he said. “Both have been here for a long time. They are both performing at a high level at the moment. We would definitely like to have them in the mix in September.”
The cases of Malkin and Letang are the two largest pieces in a very difficult puzzle that Hextall has to piece together over the summer. Strikers Evan Rodriguez, Brian Boyle, Rikard Raquel and reserve goalkeeper Casey Dessmith are set to become free agents, while forwards Danton Heinen and Kaspere Kabanen are slated free agents.
Hextall sealed one piece of the puzzle, as striker Bryan Rust signed a six-year deal over the weekend that will keep the two-time Stanley Cup winner in the fold until 2028. Rust, who scored 24 goals and 34 assists. The season, he underwent what Heckstal described as a minor procedure on one of his knees recently but should be ready before training camp.
By then, Hextall will be clear about his team’s immediate future. He notes that he has it in her immediate past, praising the penguins for their resilience during an eventful season that included lengthy absences by Crosby and Malkin and the coronavirus outbreak. Pittsburgh has managed to extend its playoff streak to 16 consecutive years, the longest active streak in major professional sports in North America.
However, the Penguins have also not been out in the first round since 2018. That’s not the norm for a team playing in a rink with five Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters.
Six months after taking over the FSG, there seems to be no rush to make drastic changes, including in the front office. It looks like Hextal, who took over the position in February 2021 following the sudden resignation of Jim Rutherford, will get a chance to guide the team through at least the early stages of the end of Crosby’s Hall of Fame career.
“All is well,” Hextal said. “[Fenway Sports Group is] Totally committed to winning. …we have a few things to look for in terms of adding to staff and stuff. We’re moving along.”