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Contract term a sticking point in Penguins/Kris Letang negotiation?

A bit of news emerging in contract negotiations between Kris Letang and the Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL: DEC 11 Ducks at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2021-22 season is the last one that Kris Letang is currently under contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the only NHL team he has ever known playing for. There has been little word about a contract negotiation to keep the franchise’s most prolific defenseman with the club for the future.

NHL Insider Pierre Lebrun shed some information during intermission last night on the TSN broadcast of the Penguins/Canadiens game about Letang’s contractual status.

When asked about Letang’s future — as well as Evgeni Malkin, who is in the same boat as an impending free agent — Lebrun said:

“For Ron Hextall, He has a ‘Plan A’ and and ‘Plan B’. I think Plan A is let’s stay competitive. Sidney Crosby is not here to rebuild and let’s try to find a way to re-sign Malkin and Letang.

Plan B is more of a rebuild, I think they’re playing well enough so far this year to convince Ron Hextall perhaps [to go with] Plan A.

Here’s the thing, there were conversations with Kris Letang’s camp led by agent Kent Hughes in the off-season and leading into training camp. But I suspect where the conversations kinda ended is that — and listen those conversations will pick up again — but I think the Penguins will be comfortable in a shorter term extension with Kris Letang and not so much a long term extension. And I think Kris Letang feels like he can play forever.

So that might be a little, not really up his alley to sign a short term deal and short-change himself. So it’ll be interesting to me from that perspective, it’s not so much that you don’t want Kris Letang back, or Evgeni Malkin back for the Penguins but it’s not a blank check situation anymore for these two guys. This team has to transition and get a little younger even though they want to stay competitive. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how both those situations play out.”

If that is the case, contract term and which side would be willing to compromise for a next Letang deal will be what could make or break the negotiation. Letang’s next contract will be an age 35+ contract, where teams understandably will be hesitant to commit a lot of years left to a player on the backend of his career.

However, Letang is building a case this season that he still is at the top of his game. He has 18 points (1G+17A) in 24 games, and is playing an average of 25:47 per game. That ranks sixth in the league in ice time. Letang is clearly a No. 1 defenseman and one of the tops in the league now at age-34, but where will he be at age-37, 38 or even 39? That is the challenge and test for Hextall to project.

From the team’s perspective, it’s clear that the shorter the contract is, the better it will be for them. A natural setup would be seeing as Sidney Crosby has three years on his contract after this season, to attempt to tie Letang and/or Malkin extensions to that. While Crosby perhaps will play beyond that, it would make a lot of sense an in ideal world to pair possible Letang and Malkin contract extensions for three seasons, tie them to Crosby and keep their aging stars through their age 37 (Crosby, Letang) and 38 (Malkin) seasons to keep the core together through the 2024-25 season. After that point, any number of the “big three” might be at retirement points, or an end point in Pittsburgh.

However, from Letang’s perspective, it’s important to see that he is turning 35 next April. A three year extension means he would be a free agent in 2025 at the age of 38 and too long in the tooth for finding another big money deal. With the amount of time Letang is playing this season, and the volume of his workload (he leads all Pens players by nearly 4 minutes per game in ice time), he seemingly has some leverage to hold the line for a four or five year deal that will be more lucrative to him than signing for a short-term deal.

Understandably, Hextall and the Pens have not been in a hurry to jump in for four or more years of a 35+ year old defenseman. But as the season has played out, perhaps their eyes have been opened to the fact that it will be tough, if not impossible given the scarcity of available elite right-handed defensemen, to replace Letang.

The one perk of a longer-term deal for the team would be that it possibly would reduce the AAV (annual average value) of Letang’s future cap hit.

In the past for the Penguins, under former general manager Jim Rutherford, the future salary cap has been kicked down the road, often trading bad contracts for worse contracts (Mike Matheson) or buying out players (Jack Johnson), which has solved short-term problems but added to the baggage down the line. That philosophy does not seem to be in-line with the management style of Hextall, who has operated in his history as a more efficient and perhaps thoughtful manner for his team’s salary structure.

As of now, all parties can let the season play out and see how individual and team performances are trending. If the Penguins were floundering, Lebrun’s “Plan B” to move on from the veterans would be more of a possibility, but right now Letang is playing about as well and as he ever has. Will it be enough to get the team to budge on offering him a contract for longer than Crosby is signed? That remains a huge question to be answered over the next six or seven months prior to free agency starting.