The Pittsburgh Penguins figured out a way to get it done.
With the re-signing of Evgeni Malkin to a four-year contract extension late Tuesday night, they officially managed to keep all three of their major unrestricted free agents with new contracts for Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust. When the offseason began it was not known if any of them would be back, and it seemed like a long shot that all three would be back.
But even when things seemed to be at their bleakest with Letang and Malkin, general manager Ron Hextall managed to get them signed.
He not only managed to get them signed, he managed to sign the trio of Malkin, Letang, and Rust for less money per year than they made a year ago. All three are signed on long-term deals for a combined salary cap hit of $17.7 million per season. A year ago that trio combined to make $20.2 million. That extra salary cap space came in handy when it came to a really unexpected bonus signing of Rickard Rakell to a six-year contract worth $5 million per season.
All of that leaves the Penguins with roughly $4 million in salary cap space going into the official start of the free agency signing period on Wednesday, with the potential to create more if they can make a trade.
The two main criticisms of these moves will be A) the term and B) the fact the Penguins are, mostly, bringing back the same team that has not found success in the playoffs the past few years.
My counterpoint is that this is still the best option because these are almost certainly the best possible players the Penguins would have been able to find on the open market, and for the best prices. They got good deals (at least as far as the cap is concerned) on each of the big three (Malkin, Letang, and Rust).
The term, for me, does not really matter for two reasons.
The first is that in three or four years the Penguins are going to be at a point where they legitimately do have to rebuild as Crosby and Co. start to inch closer to 40 and beyond. At that point it will be time to really tear things down and the cap numbers will not matter.
The second is that there are more than enough ways to either get out from these deals or hide them (LTIR) if needed.
In the short term, this is still a playoff team, and a very good playoff team. No, the results have not been there once they have reached the playoffs, but replacing your good players with inferior players is not going to fix that problem. And that was always my problem with the “let them go and make changes” suggestions that had been kicked around all offseason.
What changes were you going to make that were going to result in a better roster?
Swapping out Malkin and Letang for some combination of players like Vincent Trocheck and one of the many bad defense options in free agency was not going to do anything to move the needle in a meaningful direction for the Penguins. Not only that, it probably would have been more expensive for an inferior player that may not age as well as the Penguins’ stars they are retaining. Even a “declining” Malkin or Letang over the next two or three years is going to be better than 90 percent of their peers across the league, including probably every potential free agent addition they could have signed this offseason.
I am actually really curious to see what players like Trocheck, Andrew Copp, and John Klingberg sign for on the open market. I am already assuming that Nazem Kadri signs for way more than what Malkin signed for in Pittsburgh. Just this past offseason we saw Philip Danault get a six-year, $33 million deal in free agency from the Los Angeles Kings, That is only $600,000 less per year than Malkin’s deal.
I figure that is the starting point for players like Trocheck and Copp.
The only one of these contracts I am a bit suspicious of is the Rakell deal.
I like him. Love the way he played after the trade. Definitely high level of skill. But I just do not know what his production is going to look like. He played great with Crosby and Jake Guentzel, but it is unlikely he plays on that line (he probably plays next to Malkin while Rust stays on the top line). Is he going to be the 18-20 goal guy he has been the past few years? Or does he have another level he can get to over a full season while playing next to Crosby or Malkin? And does having a winger like Rakell help get Malkin’s assist numbers back up? Because that was Malkin’s 5-on-5 struggle this past season. His goal scoring rate actually remained very high, even during even-strength. It was the assist numbers (almost certainly due to playing most of the season next to Danton Heinen and Kasperi Kapanen) that dropped.
The Penguins obviously still have some things to address, and they do need to get better. But they still managed to keep some of their most important players and brought back their best possible options. That is a nice step.