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What does a “good contract” for Evgeni Malkin look like for him, and the team?

Evgeni Malkin wants a “good contract”, but just what could that look like?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“I believe I am still a good player,” Evgeni Malkin said yesterday. “And I believe good players sign good contracts.”

To those points, Malkin is correct on both accounts. While his 2021-22 was delayed from rehabbing coming off a major knee surgery, Malkin still recorded 42 points in 41 games. That made him one of just 17 centers (as always questionably defined by the NHL, anyways) that recorded better than a point per game this past season.

Has Malkin shown signs of age? Naturally at 35-years old, the answer is yes, his skating explosiveness and some of his physical skills are not what they were a decade prior. However, he is still one of the most talented players in the game, an ace on the power play and a productive player.

Malkin only recorded 20 even strength points this season, often a point of contention by those looking to point out weaknesses, but that doesn’t capture the full picture. Malkin was sank by a career-low 0.86 5v5 Assists/60. his Goals/60 at 1.08 remains very strong. This suggests Malkin’s low ES production was more a product of ineffective linemate play and finishing rather than his own personal drop-off. Malkin’s most common wingers were Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen, two streaky players at best (with Kapanen’s streaks tending to go from cold to colder).

Malkin’s other issue — and probably more of a forward-looking problem — is his availability. He played 41/82 games this season, taking himself out of action for four games with a suspension in addition to coming back from a major knee issue. Last season he played 33/56. The year prior in 2019-20, he appeared in 55 out of a possible 69 games. From the six full seasons from 2013-14 to 2018-19, Malkin only played 70+ games on one occasion (2017-18, playing an impressive 78). Malkin is a player who routinely misses chunks of the season.

Therein lies the tricky problem for the Penguins and Malkin to solve. What kind of “good contract” is agreeable and reasonable for team and player when dealing with an aging, somewhat diminishing and unreliable center (who still can be expected to produce an impressive amount of points in the games he is available for)?

That seems to be the sticking point, with Elliotte Friedman writing yesterday that the Pens and Malkin’s camp were zeroing in on a three-year contract extension (to match the three years remaining on Sidney Crosby’s contract) but that Malkin and the Pens were, “were far, far apart on the [salary]”.

Similar to the Kris Letang negotiation, the issue here is that there isn’t truly a blueprint of what to pay a former MVP, franchise-caliber center when he’s turning 36 this summer and has a significant injury history. Looking to the past is tough, since with industry (and world) changes since the COVID pandemic in 2020, almost everything before that point feels very out-dated and lacks some relevancy to now.

But, in the spirit of trying and keeping that above disclaimer in mind, here are some past contracts for older centers signing at least somewhat recent contracts. Past contracts aren’t necessarily the ultimate indicator of the present, but they can at least set a baseline.

Possible Malkin contract comparables

Player Age Team Season Salary Term
Player Age Team Season Salary Term
Joe Pavelski 38 Dallas 2022-23 $6.0 million 1 year
Joe Pavelski 35-37 Dallas 2019-22 $7.0 million 3 years
Nicklas Backstrom 33-37 Washington 2020-25 $9.2 million 5 years
Mikko Koivu 35-36 Minnesota 2018-20 $5.5 million 2 years
Patrick Marleau 38-40 Toronto 2017-20 $6.25 million 3 years
Joe Thornton 38 San Jose 2017-18 $8.0 million 1 year
Joe Thornton 35-37 San Jose 2014-17 $6.75 million 3 years

—Joe Pavelski is an interesting case study. At age-37 (this past year) he scored 81 points in 82 games, earning another contract in quite the late-career renaissance in Dallas. After 2018-19 (64 points in 75 games) he earned a three-year $21 million contract that is probably more of interest given his age then and Malkin’s now. From the player perspective, Pavelski’s contract in 2019 is a great point on justifying a precedent for moving the negotiation closer to the player’s idea versus the team’s offer.

—The Nicklas Backstrom contract is a big hazard and example of how a “legacy contract” can leave uncertainty, if not outright trouble for a team’s cap structure. Backstrom has a huge cap hit (which really is just the same percentage of the salary cap as what his previous contract was) and is dealing with significant hip issues that have the future of his playing career in severe jeopardy. Malkin does not have the chronic hip issue that Backstrom does, but his own checkered injury history also does not inspire confidence in signing to a huge extension.

—Mikko Koivu, with due respect, isn’t quite a player on Malkin’s level, but is at least a fitting example of an older star center that spent a whole career with one team (to that point anyways).

—The Patrick Marleau contract with Toronto looked ill-advised from almost the moment when it was signed, and he would not finish it before being traded and bought out.

—Joe Thornton is possibly the best example on record, since his age lines up well to Malkin’s now, but it’s also the most dated. Thornton, as a playmaking center, has also been more durable than Malkin.

The above examples are likely pointing to the Malkin camp (probably realistically) believing they have a reasonable case for asking for fairly significant salary even for the age 36-38 seasons if reporting on the nature of constantly evolving negotiations are true. Common sense does dictate though, that since there has not been an extension signed, there is a gap in how the sides see the situation. Malkin has openly said a pay cut will happen and hasn’t been terribly concerned about money, but he is a star player and understandably wants to be given a fitting contract.

It would be speculation to go further on tightly-kept negotiations, but just for ballpark figures and Friedman’s reporting, it looks more like the Pens are in “Mikko Koivu” territory above, and Malkin’s camp is more in the “Joe Thornton 2017” or more area.

To answer the question raised in the headline (always hate when a piece doesn’t answer the question) a fair and reasonable contract for both sides is probably in the $6.75 - $7.5 million range.

But just because that could be seen as fair based on the past, it doesn’t answer the unknown variable as to just how much the Penguins’ management and executives (namely, GM Ron Hextall who is in charge of day-to-day hockey operations) want to pay Malkin moving forward. Just because Backstrom got his contract or a long time ago San Jose gave Joe Thornton a big contract doesn’t necessarily mean that Pittsburgh will see the situation similarly or choose to go down that same path.

Clearly, to date, they haven’t seen it like that. The big question with a yet unknown answer is if they are willing to up the offer to what Malkin’s side would see as a “good contract”.

Negotiations are driven by deadlines and can turn on a dime, but Evgeni Malkin’s future in Pittsburgh is going to boil down to a business decision about how the Penguins want to set their team up moving forward. To this point, for the world it looks like the team hasn’t been interested or willing to make a fitting offer for Malkin.

That could always change in the days or weeks ahead, or as Malkin also hinted at yesterday, it could be a sign that the Penguins are preparing to move onto the future without a key piece of the past.