At this point we know the Pittsburgh Penguins would like to re-sign Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin to have them continue — and finish — their careers with the team.
Letang and Malkin have said all of the right things about wanting that to happen.
But there is a big difference between saying the right things, wanting something, and having that something actually happen.
Malkin and Letang certainly have their price in mind, the Penguins have their price in mind, and the salary cap probably plays the biggest determining factor in whether a middle ground can be met on those two prices.
I still think it is extremely likely that one, or both, ends up playing on another team next season. But I also thought Bryan Rust would be in the same situation but we already saw how that turned out, so who really knows with these things.
With that in mind, if Letang and Malkin end up going to the open market who would you see as the potential landing spots for each player? Or, which teams might make sense for them?
The obvious answer for Letang would probably be the Montreal Canadiens as a storybook way for him to end his career. But there are a lot of obstacles there. For starters, Montreal is not really in a position to contend right now. And despite that, it’s also not really a team that has a great salary cap situation even after dumping Shea Weber’s contract on the Vegas Golden Knights this week. They would need to clear a lot more and still have some pretty significant needs. I am just not sure how they make it work.
I am going to throw a wild card at you here: The Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings took a huge step forward this past season, have already shown a willingness to make a big offseason investment in this core, it is an outstanding young team, and they have a definite need for another impact player on defense. It is also a very winnable division with a somewhat manageable path in the playoffs. They also have a fairly significant amount of salary cap space to make another splash in free agency.
Of the two, I think Letang is going to have the far more competitive market.
He is still an elite player on defense, which also happens to be a position that is painfully thin in free agency this summer. The only other top-pairing defender about to hit the open market is John Klingberg from Dallas, and of the two Letang is still the superior player. Any competitive team with an ounce of salary cap space would be nuts to not place a phone call to Letang’s agent if he hits the open market.
I find Malkin’s potential market to be way more fascinating.
He is not the player he was when he was at his peak, especially during 5-on-5 play. But that does not mean he is bad. He is still a point-per-game player and when healthy can still be a difference-maker. He has decline, yes. But he is not a liability.
The team that I see as the best potential fit?
The Stars need another, err, star, and they desperately need some scoring depth beyond their top line of Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz. They are a playoff team with a good defense and a great young goalie, but they need more punch offensively. Malkin could still provide that, and they have a pretty significant amount of salary cap space at their disposal to work with. Especially if Klingberg leaves in free agency. They could make that work.
Want a wild card here?
The Avalanche have $25.6 million in salary cap space for this offseason at this moment and are in line to potentially lose some significant players, including No. 2 center Nazem Kadri in free agency. The Avalanche’s major moves under Joe Sakic have tended to be of the trade variety and not free agency, and maybe this is just the chaotic part of my brain thinking here, but that would be hilarious to see the best, most dominant offensive team in the league add somebody like that to their already loaded roster.
In the end I would prefer to see both players stay in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are not going to get better players in free agency, and with Malkin and Letang in the mix with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this is still a very competitive playoff team. The Penguins should not be ready to jump into a rebuild yet because they do not need to do that. But there is a very real possibility that those two cornerstone players play for somebody else next season. We have to be prepared for that.