Signing Kris Letang to a new, multi-season contract is the Penguins’ top priority, multiple club and NHL sources told The Athletic.
Letang is the Penguins’ top defenseman. He said after the Penguins’ postseason ended that he would like to play for at least another five seasons, and there is optimism among club management and his representation that a deal can be reached to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent in July, the sources said.
Over a dozen Penguins and NHL staff spoke for this story. Anonymity was granted because they were not authorized to speak publicly on contract negotiations and other club-related matters.
General manager Ron Hextall said at his end-of-season media session that he wants to see Letang and Evgeni Malkin retire as Penguins.
The Penguins identified Letang as their top priority for retention after quickly agreeing to a new contract for winger Bryan Rust following their opening-round loss to the Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the sources said. Rust was set to become an unrestricted free agent but signed a six-year extension at an average annual value of $5.125 million. His contract contains a limited movement clause for the first three seasons, multiple club and a league source confirmed.
Discussions between the Penguins and representatives for Letang and Malkin are ongoing, but management wants to know how much Letang will cost before turning its attention more seriously to Malkin, club and league sources said.
Fenway Sports Group (FSG), which purchased a super majority share of the Penguins in November 2021, is keen on keeping Letang and Malkin in Pittsburgh through the remainder of their respective careers, multiple club sources said. Doing so was part of a written plan Hextall presented to FSG leadership toward the end of the NHL regular season, club sources said.
Also, the club sources said, FSG has identified retention of Letang and Malkin as a way to guarantee that Captain Sidney Crosby will play his entire career with the Penguins. Crosby has three years remaining on his current contract, and management is keeping him in the loop “as much as he wants” regarding ongoing talks with Letang and Malkin, two of his closest friends on and off the ice, the club sources said.
Crosby, Malkin and Letang have spent 16 consecutive seasons together as teammates, the most by any three players in league history. They have won the Stanley Cup three times, but the Penguins have won only one postseason series since their last title in 2017 — a stretch that includes four consecutive one-and-done postseason appearances.
Still, and despite one of the deeper NHL free-agent classes of the salary-cap era, management has assessed the best use of resources is to continue building around a core of Crosby, Malkin and Letang, club and league sources said.
The Penguins have around $23 million in projected cap space available, with 16 players signed for the 2022-23 season, as monitored by the Cap Friendly website. With Rust’s new contract, nine forwards, six defensemen and goalie Tristan Jarry are signed for next season.
Malkin counted $9.5 million and Letang was at $7.25 million on their most recent contracts. Letang turned 35 in late April; Malkin will turn 36 in late July. (Read colleague Josh Yohe’s recent story on the Penguins’ cap situation here.)
More of what we’re hearing regarding the Penguins’ offseason:
• The NHL’s coaching carousel will not include Mike Sullivan, who will remain as head coach, multiple club sources said. In addition to having full support of management, Sullivan also has impressed FSG, which views him as an integral building block for the Penguins moving forward.
• Assistant coaches Todd Reirden and Mike Vellucci will be granted permission to interview for any current or future head coach openings this offseason. Though management is not keen to lose either assistant, the Penguins’ policy of not standing in the way of assistant coaches’ potential opportunities for top jobs has been adopted from previous management groups by the current regime. Chicago (Reirden) and Detroit (Vellucci) are viewed internally as possible interested parties for the Penguins’ assistants.
• Management plans to add an assistant general manager to Hextall’s staff, and an internal candidate is the leading contender. That would be Chris Pryor, currently the Penguins director of personal player.
• Video coach Andy Saucier is expected to receive a promotion and new title, but any new responsibilities would not change his in-game responsibilities. This move would be preemptive so as to not lose Saucier, who is viewed around the NHL as possessing elite recognition when it comes to which plays can be reversed.
• The Penguins would not stand in the way of assistant video coach Madison Nikkel if a head video coach job became available. Vancouver, where former Penguins GM Jim Rutherford oversees the Canucks’ hockey operations, has sought permission to interview Nikkel for his top video coach position.
(Top photo of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang: Frank Franklin II/AP Photo)