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The Penguins can’t afford to fill an Evgeni Malkin-sized hole in their lineup

Ron Hextall’s lasting legacy might be the one who let Evgeni Malkin get away

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New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

News broke yesterday across multiple outlets that Evgeni Malkin has decided to stop negotiations with the Pittsburgh Penguins and head out to test the open market on Wednesday when the NHL’s free agency opens up.

Part of the story is just how both sides arrived at this point. Malkin made it clear that he wanted to return to Pittsburgh for a 17th season and beyond to end his NHL days. On the team side, general manager Ron Hextall said many times that signing Malkin (and Kris Letang) was a priority.

Yet, it was the Letang negotiations that were on the “front burner” with reportedly little to no movement on the Malkin front for all this time. Malkin was eligible for the team to re-sign last summer, but he also underwent a second ACL surgery. Understandably, the team wanted to see him perform following that.

Despite unfounded portrayals and narratives, Malkin performed very well. He played half a season (41 games) scoring 42 points and making a major impact and even strength — Malkin’s 1.08 5v5 Goals/60 were second on the team behind only Jake Guentzel.

Malkin, though turning 36 later this month, is a generationally talented forward who has barely dropped off from his peak. This chart is remarkable and only matched by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as players providing such consistent Wins Above Replacement throughout their careers.

Reports differ on just where the Pens’ best offer is, but Rob Rossi of The Athletic — no less that a Malkin biographer — and the first person to indicate Letang might get a six year contract said that Pittsburgh never had a four year contract offer firmly on the table for Malkin.

That’s right, the GM who just signed Letang through age-41 and earlier this season, he gave a six-year deal to pay Bryan Rust through his age-36 season. Rickard Rakell joined the six year club last night too, all for years past-peak and another dangerously termed contract for the team. Hextall was lightning quick to sign up Jeff Carter through his age-39 season, but slow played giving a franchise icon in Malkin a contract through his 39-year old season.

If the Penguins lose Malkin, especially when they potentially could/would have gotten him for a cap hit in the $6 million range or slightly north, the consequences for Hextall will be incredibly high. There is no replacement for the charts above to fill Malkin’s shoes in this price range.

The problem for the Pens at this point is that they have seemed to lose the best tool of negotiation, in the form of all the good will and relationship built over the years. Rossi wrote a few days ago that Crosby took a trip to Miami to see Malkin in his off-season home, more out of concern and to see how his friend was holding up than anything else. Rossi also wrote:

Malkin sent congratulatory texts to Rust and Letang (and backup goalie Casey DeSmith) on the days their new deals became official. Each player asked him if he was next.

His response: “They think I’m not good anymore.”

The Penguins ended up driving Malkin away with the way they handled and played the negotiations. They had a set limit to fit players and needed to figure out just how much they had, yet allowed Letang and Malkin to get to the 11th hour.

And now it is the Pens who find themselves out in the cold if Malkin departs.

A day before free agency, Hextall and the Pens must find a way to repair the damage that was inadvertently caused. Otherwise the legacy of this manager will be losing one of the best players the game has ever seen, for terms that wouldn’t be reasonable considering all the other moves that have been completed to this point.