The Penguins have an Evgeni Malkin question with no easy answer

The Penguins have to keep Evgeni Malkinthey said.

He’s a franchise icon. Even less than a year removed from ACL surgery, he still put up a point per game. He’ll be even better next season when his knee is stronger.

Plus, he doesn’t get to play with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. He plays with Kasperi Kapanen and an injured Jason Zucker. He had Rickard Rakelltoo, but only for a few games.

The power play was so much better with Malkin on it. It was below average all season and, thanks to Malkin’s inclusion, suddenly became a top-10 unit. This can’t be denied. When he’s playing well, he gives the Penguins a different gear.

If, God forbid, Sidney Crosby gets hurt, you know Malkin will carry the Penguins. He always has.

Plus, he’s still marketable. He’s Geno. He’s the fourth-greatest player in franchise history, which is no small feat when considering the top three are Mario Lemieux, Crosby and Jaromir Jagr. Malkin is on the Penguins’ Mount Rushmore. Such icons are to be treated with respect. The Penguins are all about their stars and are still stinging that Jagr got away once upon a time. Not Geno. He’s earned the right to retire as a Penguin, they said. He’s so smart and so strong that he’ll figure out a way to be productive until he’s 40.

Malkin still produces in the postseason and his underlying numbers remain elite.

It’s hard to deny any of the above.

Then, you turn to the other side of the argument.

The Penguins can’t keep Evgeni Malkin, they said.

Did you know that 44 players in the NHL scored at least one point per game this past season? It’s not as hard as it used to be. Even three defensemen did it. Let’s not get carried away.

Remember Malkin’s MVP season in 2011-12? Yeah, that was a long time ago. That was President Barack Obama’s first term. Since then, Malkin has played in 70 or more games in a season one time. Sure, there were three shortened seasons in that mix. But still, in the seven seasons since then that have been played to their completion, he’s reached the 70-game plateau one time. He’s missed 185 games due to injury during that time, which is almost two and a half seasons’ worth. He’s not durable. And now, he’s old.

It’s true his knee should be stronger the longer he’s removed from his surgery. It’s also true he turns 36 on July 31. Did you watch him play this past season? He looked pretty slow, and the NHL keeps getting faster. How is Malkin at this speed going to help the Penguins win another Cup? Think he’d be keeping up with the Avs right now? Or a year from now? Or in 2025?

In his first 12 seasons, Malkin was a combined plus-114. In his past four seasons, he’s a combined minus-32. Are you noticing a trend? Also, those nine power-play goals in 41 games were great, but that was also the highest power-play-goal-per-game ratio of his career. Is that really sustainable at 36? His defensive work continues to decline, too.

It’s pretty hard to deny all this, too, which brings us to the Penguins’ predicament.

General manager Ron Hextall is in quite a bind. The Fenway Group wants the Penguins to win and wants them to be marketable, just like any reasonable ownership group would prefer. Malkin has never been the Penguins’ biggest box office draw — that will be Crosby until the day he hangs up his skates — but he is a draw, he is a Penguins’ legend and he is eternally popular among fans. In his 16 NHL seasons, the Penguins have literally never missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. They’ve won three championships, have played in four Stanley Cup finals and five Eastern Conference finals. They’ve been the ultimate winners.

Of course, they’ve also lost five consecutive playoff series. There are contradictions and counter-arguments in every direction.

As spring turns into summer, the Penguins are attempting to sign Kris Letang and Malkin. Hextall said this publicly in May, anyway. The GM has spoken with representatives for both Malkin and Letang since then.

The Penguins absolutely want Letang back. He’s 35 and comes with some maddening habits, but he’s held up well defensively, and offensive-minded men are more important now than ever. Maybe Letang and the Penguins will come to an agreement and maybe they won’t. If they don’t, it won’t be because the Penguins aren’t sure what Letang still brings to the table. It could be simply that Letang, who has displayed zero interest in giving the Penguins a discount for his services, received more money elsewhere.

Malkin’s situation is a little different. He’s on record as saying he will take less money to stay in Pittsburgh, and he has to. Even his biggest supporters will agree that he’s no longer a $9.5 million per year player.

But how much is is it worth? How much will he produce in the future? How many games will he play? How will his surgically repaired knee hold up? How much will he slow down? How much money are the Penguins willing to give him? And how much is he willing to accept? How long will the Penguins be willing to employ him? And how many years will Malkin be willing to accept? If they don’t sign Malkin, who becomes the Penguins’ No. 2 center? The answer certainly isn’t on the roster.

These are a lot of questions. Important questions. Questions that don’t present simple answers.


(Philip G. Pavely / USA Today)

Malkin doesn’t possess a lifetime pass to play with the Penguins. Only Lemieux and Crosby have received such rights. And this isn’t 2001, when Jagr was traded because, quite frankly, the Penguins could no longer afford him.

The Fenway Group just bought the Penguins for nearly $1 billion, and the Penguins’ salary cap situation, while not ideal, certainly isn’t bad. They can afford Malkin.

But does Hextall truly want to retain him? Or was last month’s news conference lip service?

It’s a valid question. There are many valid questions with Malkin these days, with no clear answers. He is a superstar who is beginning to fade but who still brings immense talent and legacy to the table. Let him go, and you lose the potential of a storybook ending with an all-time great Penguin. You also lose plenty of production.

Should Hextall keep him too long, of course, he’s perhaps digging his own grave.

The Crosby/Malkin era has been nothing short of magnificent. It’s lived up to the considerable hypo, and then some. This has been the golden era of Penguins’ hockey. It’s been a blast.

Final chapters of books can be the most difficult to write. Now comes the hard part.

There are no easy answers here, only calculated risks that will determine the future of the franchise and one of its brightest stars.

(Top photo: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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