The pending free agents of the Pittsburgh Penguins core did not strike an optimism tone. Nay, it was not only the opposite of optimism, it sounded like a regretful concession to a coming reality. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust spoke to the Pittsburgh media and fielded the obvious questions about their contract status, their hopes, and what comes next.
Evgeni Malkin probably said it best.
“I’m ready both ways…If I stay, I’ll be much happier,” Malkin said in his nearly 10-minute chat.
Editor’s note: there is some disagreement if Malkin said “ready both ways or ready to go away. After initial publishing, and staff consultation we believe he meant “both ways.”
The tone was consistent. Kris Letang wants to stay. Bryan Rust wants to stay. Even Rickard Rakell felt he could take his game to the next level if he could stick around.
Yet it’s May 18. Letang, Rust, and Malkin have been pending free agents since July of last summer. It’s been 10 months since GM Ron Hextall said Letang and Malkin were top priorities. After initial conversations last summer, some of which PHN can confirm were cursory and not substantial, there has been little to no movement.
Sportsnet reporter extraordinaire Elliotte Friedman broke some news in his latest 32 Thoughts podcast when he reported that Letang and the Penguins were miles apart. The Penguins and Malkin agreed to a three-year deal, but not money.
Thoughts of the boys taking big hometown discounts evaporated on Tuesday. Malkin harkened back to his joke in January to make a point.
“I believe I’m still a good player, and I believe good players sign good contracts,” said Malkin. “If I say I’m a rich guy doesn’t mean I deserve a $1 million contract.”
Yes, good players sign good contracts. Future Hall of Fame players who score more than a point per game sign better contracts than players who aren’t.
The 2022 NHL Draft is about six weeks away, and that figures to be a pivotal event in both the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the tenure of Hextall. Big trades happen at the draft. Teams either add talent to set themselves up for the free-agent frenzy, which follows a week later.
“I’m not looking at rob anyone,” said Rust. “I just want what I deem is fair. Get a reasonable contract. … I’d like to think something will get worked out here.”
By now, it would seem Hextall should have an idea of what Rust thinks is fair.
If indeed, Letang, Rust, and Malkin were priorities, surely one would be signed by now. Jeff Carter got a new contract. Even Mark Friedman got a two-year deal. So, we know Hextall’s phone works, and his pen has ink.
In a break with tradition and contrary to many teams across the league, the Penguins GM has not yet addressed the media.
Pittsbugh Penguins Change
Also, there’s no danger of pressure from Penguins loyalist and owner Mario Lemieux. He no longer owns the team, which seems to get lost in the shuffle. The nebulous press releases at the time of sale indicated Lemieux would remain an owner, but as we guessed at the time, that appears to have been more ceremonial than substantial.
Former team CEO David Morehouse abruptly resigned a few weeks ago. He reportedly cited a distant relationship with the new Fenway Group ownership and stepped away.
The emotion does not bind the new powers, nor do historical ties and the promises made long ago that all three would ride into the sunset together.
And so, each of the Penguins’ unrestricted free agents expressed a desire to stay, but only after speaking in the negative about the process. They also used past tense regarding their tenures. Letang spoke as if he’s expecting to hit free agency, albeit he didn’t intend to do so and past tense on the Penguins’ intentions.
“I’ve always signed an extension in the past, so (free agency is) not something I know what to expect. It’s always been my main goal to stay here and play in Pittsburgh. So I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect,” Letang sullenly.
“There haven’t been real amplified talks yet, but we’ll see where that goes in a couple of weeks,” Rust said.
A year of uncertainty coming down to a couple of weeks seems more like waiting by the phone on Friday night for a call that hasn’t come all week. You know, back when people use phones as phones.
Malkin talked about his brothers, one Canadian, one French Canadian. The boys spend so much time together and have done so since Michel Thererien used to throw them out of the rink because they hung around too long.
While everyone claimed not to discuss it–that’s not entirely true. If there’s anyone that Malkin and Letang have confided, it’s Crosby.
“It’s something we’ve had to talk about and think about all year. I mean, it’s it’s not easy. I think it’s it’s amazing how those guys are able to kind of put that aside and and continue to play that, you know, the way that they did. It’s never easy when you go through that situation,” Sidney Crosby said.
Past tense and hope regarding the end of their Penguins careers.
“Obviously, as soon as the game ended and sitting in the locker room and on the bus back to the airport and stuff, those things crossed my mind,” Rust said. “Obviously (it is) never a great thought and (they) happened a few weeks earlier than I would like. But…yeah…”
Malkin admitted he’ll go. Letang seemed to acquiesce, too. Rust perhaps held out the most hope. He seemed to plead when he asked for a fair contract.
But as head coach Mike Sullivan has been known to say, hope is not a strategy.
If Hextall is not going to make a serious and host effort to re-sign any of the trio, he should probably say so. It seems almost cruel to leave them twisting in the wind, hoping for a call that will never come.
Otherwise, there is no evidence, no suggestion, and no indications that the Pittsburgh Penguins core will remain together. By all of the available evidence, it’s over. Even the players know it, even if they hope otherwise.