The 2022-23 Pittsburgh Penguins are almost certainly going to look very, very different when the puck drops to open the season. Change is inevitable in the NHL (and any salary cap sport, for that matter) and the Penguins are looking at the potential for a lot of it this offseason.
Not only because they are coming off of a fourth consecutive First Round exit (something that will always bring its own set of changes), but also because they have some significant unrestricted free agents to deal with. Significant might not even do it justice. These are franchise players, a significant part of a championship core that helped form the best era of hockey in the team has ever seen.
Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan rust are the headlining numbers, but Evan Rodrigues and Rickard Rakell also have expiring deals, while decisions need to be made on Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen as restricted free agents.
Not all of them will return.
There is a possibility that only a couple of them return.
There is also the chance that none of them return.
If I were a betting man I would guess that Malkin might be the most likely of the top-three free agents to return. His relationship with Crosby being a potential factor, as well as the fact he might (emphasis on might) be the one to take a lesser contract. Rust strikes me as the least likely because this is his one chance to cash in with a major contract, and he is going to get it. And he should absolutely go for it (and the Penguins should not be the ones to pay it).
Then there is Letang.
Letang is the one that should be the priority and the one they are willing to go the furthest to keep.
The primary reason he should be the priority: He is simply, as of this moment, the most valuable of the three and the most difficullt to replace if he leaves. Even though he is in his mid-30s he is not really slowing down. He remains a top-tier all-around defenseman and is coming off one of his best seasons in the league. He is fanatical about his health and staying in shape, and he should still have at least a few more high level seasons in him.
While I am not going to go as far as to say that Malkin is finished as a top player (he is still really, REALLY productive) I do think it is easier to find a good, capable second-line center that you can win with if you needed to do that.
The same is true for replacing Rust, Rakell, or Rodrigues.
You can get a solid top-six winger or middle-six forward in a lot of different ways.
Just look at the No. 2 centers currently playing in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. They are not all superstars. Or even stars.
Finding another top defenseman, though, is next to impossible. Certainly not on the level of even a current day Letang. Looking at the free agent options, and the only other player that comes close to fitting that mold is John Klingberg, and that is not an upgrade (nor is he going to be cheap). You could go the trade route and look for somebody like Mathew Dumba or Jakob Chychrun, but the Penguins A) do not have a ton of trade assets, and B) you are again looking at a downgrade at the spot. At least as it stands with Dumba. I like Chychrun and his potential long-term, but the Penguins do not have the trade assets for that (I am guessing).
I get that nobody wants to make it an either/or question, but without knowing exactly what each player is looking for, while also taking into account the fact the Penguins have to fill other holes and make improvements to the roster, you may not be able to keep both Malkin and Letang, as much as you might want to keep both. You might have to actually make a hockey decision and prioritize value and your other options. In that instance, it is a no-brainer that Letang is the player to focus on first. If I am running the Penguins (and I am obviously not) I would explore any and all options there. Not necessarily a blank check or accepting any term, but aggressively exploring everything. Even if it meant upping the salary cap number to bring down the number of years. Or more years to bring down the cap number.
As long as you still have Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, you have a chance to compete. The best path toward that next season is finding a way to keep Letang on the roster.
I would prefer to have Malkin back as well, but keeping everybody you want is going to be a challenge.