When attentions turn to this summer and the mountain of work facing GM Ray Shero, Assistant GM and cap guru Jason Botterill and the rest of the Penguins' front office, only one certainty should exist in a mess of otherwise uncertain futures.
Pittsburgh needs to sign Evgeni Malkin. Beginning and end what becomes an otherwise stupid discussion.
While he's been held without a point in the Eastern Conference Finals, Malkin has been Pittsburgh's most threatening forward. Geno was plagued by an injured shoulder throughout 2013, but is relatively healthy now and leads the team in postseason scoring. He also put on a virtuoso performance in 2012, capturing his second Art Ross and first Hart Trophy. He's 26 years old, has a yin and yang right winger in James Neal (who happens to be signed through 2018) and is as singularly dominant as Sidney Crosby when on his game, if not as consistent.
Pittsburgh, publicly, has stated that signing Malkin is their top priority. His current deal ends next summer, but he and the Pens will be free to begin negotiating a contract extension this year. All parties involved have even indicated a willingness to sign Malkin to a higher annual salary than captain Sidney Crosby.
Malkin's deal can only be extended eight years -- a provision of the NHL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA.
Crosby's deal, which totals more than $100 million over 12 seasons, was not subject to this limitation. Malkin's will be. Currently, both carry an $8.7 million cap hit. There's no question Malkin will command $8.7 million, minimum, on the open market. A limitation on term means total deals thrown his way may easily top $10 million per season.
If that's what he wants, that's what he's worth.
A falling salary cap means the Penguins will have to be more careful with their roster, but who else on the team is worth keeping to the point that Malkin may not be happy with his next offer?
Kris Letang? He's been on the ice for seven of Boston's 11 goals and a whole lot more throughout the playoffs. He'll easily double his current salary on the open market, and the Pens have a stable of would-be replacements in their minor league system.
Pascal Dupuis? He's been every bit as impactful as any Penguins forward not named Crosby, Malkin or Jordan Staal since the 2009 Cup, but risking Malkin for a 30-plus-year-old forward is insane.
The simple fact is that Malkin is the only irreplaceable talent on this team not signed through the 2024 season. Even Letang, who should lead all NHL defensemen in scoring in any given season, is at some level expendable.
A loss to the Bruins tonight will send the Penguins dialogue in all kinds of crazy angles. Fire everyone. Trade everyone else. But the summer's coming one way or another, and it would be best for Penguins fans to let this discussion end before it even gets started.