With free agency just days away, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Evgeni Malkin are at a crossroads — and the Washington Capitals need a top-6 center to help fill Nicklas Backstrom’s void.
Since starting his historic career, Malkin has been a part of the Penguins’ elite core and helped lead the team to three Stanley Cups, and it seemed as if he would end up remaining in Pittsburgh until he decided to hang up the skates — until now.
Per The Athletic’s Rob Rossi, Malkin wondered if the Penguins still want him, and his friends say that he is “devastated” with how talks have gone. Malkin had reportedly been offered a two-year and three-year deal that carried an AAV of $6 million, but he didn’t seem to like the term.
“If the Penguins offered four years, that $6 million salary could work for Malkin,” Rossi wrote. “However, Malkin distanced himself and prepared to move on after what he saw as a combination of low offers and being a lack of a priority for the Penguins.”
Ron Hextall, meanwhile, told Pittsburgh Hockey Now at the draft that he was “chipping away” at a deal and trying to find common ground with Geno, but wasn’t quick to call any pending agreement a surefire thing.
“I wouldn’t say ‘confident,'” Hextall said regarding a possible deal. “I wasn’t confident in Kris [Letang] the day before, either. That’s kind of how these things work… we’ve said right from the start that we’d like to bring [Malkin] back. And I strongly believe that he wants to come back.”
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Still, apparent rising tensions just days before agency is a tough spot to be in. And, if Malkin does hit the market, is there any possibility that Washington would go after their longtime rival? And, if they do, would Malkin even want to join D.C.?
It’s not likely. General manager Brian MacLellan said the team will operate under the belief that Backstrom will return in 2022-23. So, when it comes to cap space, the team isn’t planning to place him on LTIR and sign an expensive star to take his place.
“We can’t just go out and sign a $9 million player,” MacLellan said matter-of-factly on Wednesday.
Malkin is coming off a deal that paid him $9.5 million per year. Though it appears he is set to take a pay cut, the 36-year-old wants term — and there’s a risk there. He had knee surgery in the 2021 offseason, though he said it’s no longer a concern for him. In fact, he had a strong showing in 2021-22, dishing 20 goals and 22 assists in 41 games. Also, prior to the last two seasons that saw him play under 50 games, he had 70-plus points in six of those seven campaigns.
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It’s clear that he still has talent, and he can still bring a lot to the table. Malkin is a playmaker and scorer who can also work as a catalyst on the power play. There’s also the Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov connection in the District.
However, the Capitals want to get younger. MacLellan plans to fill Backstrom’s void mainly from within, with the likes of Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre competing for more responsibility and spots in the NHL lineup this coming season. So, taking on Malkin at this point in time and having him on board until 40 years old at $6 million per isn’t ideal.
Plus, the team needs a netminder following the Vitek Vanecek trade. Bringing in a clear No. 1 is Washington’s main goal, and from the sound of it, MacLellan is ready to “jump in the fire” and pay for a starter, which he knows won’t come cheap given the thinning market. Then, there are pending free agents in Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin. Carl Hagelin’s future also hangs in the balance, so his salary could come back on the books as well.
Then, there’s the flip side. From the look of it, Malkin is dedicated to Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby also went to see Malkin amid the stalled negotiations, per Rossi. With his friendships and love for the Penguins franchise, it doesn’t seem that he would be quick to sign with such a rival. We saw this with Marc-Andre Fleury, who didn’t want to come to the Capitals at the deadline given his history in Steel City.
Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a fit. Still, the situation will be interesting to watch, as anything can happen over the course of the next 96 hours.