As we wait on the start and details for the NHL’s latest return to play for the 2020-21 season, one item that stands out for the Penguins is the following season in 2021-22. That will be the last season that Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are under contract. Not to mention other players like Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen and Jared McCann (the latter two being restricted free agents).
The Penguins as we know them could be very, very different in 2022-23. While many core/important players are still under contract three seasons out — led by Sidney Crosby, of course, but also including Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin and Tristan Jarry — a key path forward will clearly be what decisions are made by the team and players by 2022 as to the future of the Pens.
And while Pittsburgh will certainly have to account for Letang and Rust, the key piece of the equation will be what happens with Malkin.
As recently as September, Malkin told The Athletic’s Rob Rossi that he envisioned signing a three year contract extension with the Pens. Official contract talks, per the CBA, can’t occur until next off-season once Malkin will only have one year left on his deal. In the past with Malkin and Crosby contracts, the Pens have always agreed to extensions almost immediately when eligible to do so, thankfully removing any and all drama about what could come next for two of the biggest stars of this generation.
A three year extension for Malkin would tie him to Pittsburgh through the 2024-25 season, matching the term Crosby has left. That makes a lot of sense for all parties to extend the Crosby/Malkin window and have them tied together through summer 2025, when Malkin will turn 39 and Crosby will celebrate his 38th birthday.
While a three year extension, to cover ages 36-38 of Malkin’s career, makes a lot of sense and will probably be easy for both sides to agree on, the next piece of the puzzle is money.
As of right now, Malkin’s $9.5 million cap hit places him tied for 12th in the NHL among forwards in 2020-21. Four forwards (Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin, Auston Matthews and John Tavares) have a cap hit at or north of $11.0 million, with McDavid’s $12.5 million hit currently leading the league. Even in his 30’s, Malkin is a value on this contract, considering he ranked fifth in points/game last season, and with health could even still contend to be among the league leaders in points despite now getting into his 30’s.
The salary cap won’t be an issue, as of right now the Pens have $42.1 million in contracts for eight players in 2022-23. Surely a piece like Malkin is a player to sign regardless of cost and figure out how to slot a lineup of players around a franchise piece.
One very important and natural guidepost for the next Malkin contract extension will be revealed when Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals announce a new contract there. Ovechkin is under contract until 2020-21, and it is believed when this season is closer to starting the two sides will finalize a three to five year extension worth around $10 million annually for Ovechkin, as the player has already all but said his future will be in Washington.
Malkin won’t be able to sign until next summer, so Ovechkin’s deal will be known. Malkin’s current contract, an eight year, $76.0 million ($9.5 million annual) pact, is not so coincidentally almost identical to the $9.538 million cap hit that Ovechkin has been playing on. Ovechkin’s deal, signed in 2008 under rules that have changed, was at the time the highest cap hit in the league. Malkin’s deal was the second highest in the NHL at the time it was signed.
With all of this in mind, it makes sense to imagine a three-year, $10ish million per year deal for Malkin that will see his cap hit go up slightly, but with the hopes that in three, four, five years from now the NHL’s business will have rebounded and push revenues and the salary cap up a bit too.
Paying a lot of money to a center for his age 36-38 seasons isn’t a bargain, but Malkin’s 2019-20 age-33 season lends some credence to the fact that it’s not without merit. Team owner Mario Lemieux has been said to be a big proponent of Crosby and Malkin staying in Pittsburgh for their whole NHL careers, and obviously Lemieux knows a thing or two about the value of keeping a star center in place.
There’s a lot of value there for the team as they look to sell tickets and merchandise, a player with a 15 year track record built of excellence is in-line for that. And Lemieux himself put up 91 points in 67 games in his age-37 season in 2002-03 (2nd best in the NHL in points/game that year), so the franchise probably won’t have too much angst that a star center could still be a difference maker even late in his career.
We still have some time to let the future unfold, but the pieces are already starting to come into focus a bit for Malkin’s next contract. The most important aspect would probably be his willingness and appetite to remain in the NHL for a few more years. If that part of the puzzle remains unchanged and Malkin is looking to stay with Crosby and the Pens for a while further, the rest will likely come into place without too much issue.
The bigger drama for 2022 will likely be what the Pens want to, or are able to do, about Letang and Rust as far as what the price and willingness to keep them would be. It’s still a bit crazy to think that Malkin is only under contract for about 18 months with Pittsburgh, but the good news for the Pens is he will only be 36 at the time of his next deal kicking in, and probably in a good zone to match Ovechkin and Crosby as far as staying around in the NHL for a few more seasons after this contract in order to keep the Crosby/Malkin era going from 2005 until likely 2025.