Now that Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has agreed to terms on a long-term, big-money contract, joining company with center Sidney Crosby and forward James Neal, salary cap space is evaporating quickly for the talent-rich club, which will next turn their focus toward negotiating a deal with top defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang, 26, was one of the NHL's best on the blue line during the 2012-13 season, with five goals, 38 points, and a plus-16 rating in 35 games. He's set for unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2013-14 season.
At the moment, it's unclear how the eight-year, $76 million contract the Penguins and Malkin agreed to on Thursday will affect their willingness to spend on Letang -- but it's safe to say crafting a deal won't be made any easier. Between Malkin, Crosby and Neal, Pittsburgh already has more than $23 million in salary tied up for 2014-15.
However, Penguins general manager Ray Shero is taking it one step at a time and locking down his big names.
"I would prefer to retain a player like Evgeni Malkin, instead of saying, 'Boy, I'm not sure if we can do this or fit this in,' and two years from now see the cap going up and say, 'Boy, why didn't we sign him?'" Shero said at a press conference Thursday. "And so, I want to operate in today, keeping a great player, and keeping this thing together either by salary cap, the play of our team, the happiness of everyone, and go from there."
Like other general managers of quality teams playing in the salary-cap era, Shero faces a bittersweet dilemma. He has an abundance of talent on his roster and only so much cap space to hang on to it all.
As he reached the final season of a four-year, $14 million deal, Letang wants at minimum a five-year deal with a no-trade clause and $7 million annually, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Shero has been working hard to put the Penguins' roster puzzle together, and providing Letang doesn't reach too high, it seems like he may be the next piece to fall into place.
"I want to try to get to Kris and see exactly what they have in mind and to see whether or not that's going to work for us," Shero said. "We'll certainly turn our attention to Kris here over the next little bit and see where we are and have those conversations and see exactly if we're in the same ballpark. He certainly is a key player with us, and he's a young player. I do believe that his best days and part of his career are ahead of him."
If Pittsburgh and Letang can make a deal, a significant chunk of the Penguins' cap space will be invested in four players. This summer, Shero will need to negotiate with UFAs Pascal Dupuis,Jarome Iginla, Matt Cooke,Craig Adams, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Mark Eaton. Decisions and financial flexibility will not be getting easier.
However, the upside is certainly huge. The Penguins are a win-now team, and locking down a star defender entering the prime of his career could be exactly what they need to claim another Stanley Cup.
"We're going to get to those discussions and see and have to make some decisions," Shero said. "If we get into July or August or next year with Kris Letang on a one-year contract, then I would say at this point that we'd like to try and sign him and keep him here. He's a very good defenseman, and they're very hard to find."
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