What I’m hearing about the Penguins: Malkin, Letang, Hextall, Trocheck and JT Miller

We’re 10 days away from the NHL Draft and 16 days away from the start of the unrestricted free agency period.

Things are starting to get serious now.

I’ve made some phone calls and have chatted with players, agents and Penguins team officials to get a feel for what is about to happen. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

• Numerous agents have told me that, after conversations they’ve had with Penguins general manager Ron Hextall, they believe it’s unlikely that Evgeni Malkin is returning to Pittsburgh. Some people I’ve talked to in the Penguins organization feel the same way.

So, is Malkin gone?

It’s impossible to say, but here’s what I know: Hextall is willing to sign him at a certain price. However, sources said the two sides haven’t been speaking regularly after initial talks when the Penguins’ season ended on May 15. Hockey people who speak with Hextall on a regular basis are very much under the impression that Malkin’s return to the Penguins is no sure thing.

Things can change quickly in negotiations. Bryan Rust and the Penguins weren’t close to a new deal during regular-season conversations but struck a deal less than a week after the season ended.

It’s impossible to ignore the pessimism I sense from many who have spoken to Hextall, though.

Unless Malkin is willing to take a lesser deal – he’s confirmed he’ll take a pay cut, but how much? – he may have played his final game with the Penguins. Hextall is very clearly preparing for the possibility.

• Agents often find Hextall frustrating to deal with, which isn’t necessarily an insult toward the GM. Giving agents and players what they want can create a quick road to disaster.

Hextall, in particular, is being stingy with Malkin and Kris Letang in regards to what they want. Many agents around the league have also confirmed Hextall isn’t likely to give the contract lengths that free agents on the market are demanding.

The general manager knows this team only has so many years with Sidney Crosby playing at a dominant level and it seems apparent that he doesn’t want to dish out lengthy contracts that could hinder the rebuilding movement, whenever it arrives. Rust was given a six-year deal because he agreed to considerably less money than he could have received on the open market. Other players – on the Penguins’ roster and unrestricted free agents around the league – are probably going to encounter offers that are for less time than what they prefer.

• Of course, this could be the case around the league.

Remember, the salary cap has been stagnant for a while, which teams didn’t anticipate when they dished out hefty contracts before COVID-19 hit.

Some gigantic contracts will be dished out on July 13, make no mistake. But there will be an even greater number of frustrated players who aren’t receiving the kind of offers they were expecting.

• The Penguins very much want to sign Letang. They believe he remains a No. 1 defenseman despite being 35, and, given his exceptional training, they believe he can remain elite for a while longer.

Hextall is also aware that no one on his current roster can replicate the minutes or responsibility that Letang can handle. The Penguins like John Marino but don’t have any notion that he’s the Penguins’ next No. 1 defenseman. They like Mike Matheson, too, but don’t envision him in such a role, either.

Attractive players are on the free-agent market, namely John Klingberg, but the Penguins know they’ll be overpaying for anyone they land once free agency begins.

That brings us back to Letang.

The Penguins have offered Letang a three-year contract. Letang wants five years and something north of $ 8 million per year annually, perhaps as high as $ 9 million.

Both sides are going to need to compromise a bit to get this done. But make no mistake, Hextall wants to sign Letang.

• Hextall and Brian Burke don’t hold PO Joseph in the same regard as Jim Rutherford did. Rutherford traded for Joseph in the Phil Kessel deal three years ago and envisioned Joseph as a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. The defenseman didn’t look out of place in an NHL cameo for a couple of weeks in 2020.

Still, Hextall and Burke don’t dislike Joseph, and it’s time for him to become a regular NHL. He’s highly skilled and can skate, which is precisely the direction NHL defenseman are going. To make room for him, and to help Hextall configure his roster, a current NHL defenseman needs to be traded.

The candidates are Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson and Marino.

A source within the organization said Pettersson is the player the Penguins would prefer to move. They don’t dislike him, but three factors are working against him.

He’s not been great during the past two seasons and was a healthy scratch on a somewhat regular basis during the second half of last season. His lack of consistency is a concern.

Marino is right-handed. If Letang leaves via free agency, the Penguins can’t afford to be without their top two right-handed defensemen. Also, even though Marino has been pretty mediocre in the past two seasons, the Penguins still like the idea of ​​him playing directly behind Letang on the right side for the next few years. Chad Ruhwedel and Mark Friedman are solid depth defensemen, but the Penguins don’t view either as a top-four player.

Dumoulin didn’t have a good 2021-22 season and has perhaps been in decline since sustaining an ankle injury in St. Louis. Louis in 2019. However, Letang loves playing with him and the coaching staff remains very comfortable with him.

• You’ll hear plenty of Marc-Andre Fleury’s name as we near closer to free agency.

It would be a wonderful story if he returns to Pittsburgh and shares duties with Tristan Jarry, whom Fleury likes a great deal on a personal level. However, Hextall wasn’t interested in Fleury last summer when he was available, and Vegas literally traded him for nothing. Perhaps part of that was financial.

Hextall really had no way of making Fleury fit under the cap last season.

This is different. Fleury won’t command the same $ 7 million salary he earned last season, and the Penguins have more than $ 23 million of cap space and need to sign a second goalie. It might be unlikely, but it’s not the worst idea for the Penguins to consider, as my sense is that Casey DeSmith won’t be back.

• Local products Vince Trocheck and JT Miller have been skating together at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. No, this doesn’t mean they’re auditioning for the Penguins. It just means they live here in the summer.

That said, it’s hard not to consider the possibilities with both. Should Malkin leave town, the Penguins are obviously in the market for a top-six center. Trocheck will become an unrestricted free agent on July 13 and, while he voiced his desire to return to Carolina, it seems inevitable that he will hit the market. He will be a hot commodity.

Miller, who has emerged as a wonderful player in Vancouver, has only one year remaining on his deal.

They’re both Pittsburgh-area people, and I believe both would love the opportunity to play for the Penguins. If Malkin leaves, Trocheck is perhaps the most logical replacement on the open market. He’s not a future Hall of Famer like Malkin, but he’s a very good two-way center who would be a perfect fit in coach Mike Sullivan’s system. Trocheck’s speed, strong defensive work and overall tenacity would no doubt please Sullivan. Trocheck is the kind of guy coaches love.

Trocheck is going to want a deal of around six years in length. He’s going to want in the neighborhood of $ 6 million to $ 6.5 million annually. On the open market, he’ll probably get those numbers. Would he be willing to offer a hometown discount? It’s tough to say, but given Hextall’s stinginess, it might be necessary if the two sides engage in serious talks.

• If the Penguins are unable to sign pending free agent Rickard Rakell to a new deal, it’s a problem. They’ll be loaded on the top line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust at wing. On the second line, they’ll have injury-prone Jason Zucker on the final year of his contract. And who else? Top-six wingers aren’t easy to come by, and Rakell, in limited work, fit quite nicely with the Penguins.

Rakell liked it in Pittsburgh and is interested in returning. However, many teams will be interested in him on the open market.

• I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Fenway Group isn’t interested in any kind of rebuild. This is an ownership group that wants to win right now.

Expect plenty of transactions this summer.

• When you’re considering the Penguins ’roster in your head this summer – and you know you do this – don’t forget about Drew O’Connor. The organization really likes him and he’s very much part of their plans. If he has another good training camp, I fully expect him to be in their top-12 forward rotation when the season begins.

(Photo by Evgeni Malkin: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)


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