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Tim Benz: Evgeni Malkin has been playing hardball on the contract front; it’s clear the Penguins are willing as well

If you were under the impression that Evgeni Malkin’s contract negotiations with the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to end as swimmingly as Kris Letang’s did, sorry to disappoint.

Apparently, this keeping the band together idea isn’t going to happen without getting out of tune.

Malkin has been playing hardball with the Penguins, and general manager Ron Hextall appears willing to do the same.

Hextall proved that by retaining winger Rickard Rakell with a contract of $30 million over six years Monday night, squeezing the cap so tight that Malkin may not have the room to come back even if he wants to do so.

This is no longer about Malkin wanting to continue playing “with his brothers” Letang and Sidney Crosby. This is no longer about Malkin just needing a little love to keep playing in Pittsburgh because he’s “already a rich guy.”

This is about money. This is about the term. This is about raw cash in the deal versus the perceived amount Malkin can get on the open market. Not to mention ego and perception associated with annual average value and total guaranteed money.

This is about terse phone calls between agents and management, not weepy texts between teammates all up in their feelings.

The Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravailli has said the Penguins put a four-year deal on the table for Malkin. It’s his belief that the team’s goal is to get Malkin signed at roughly $6.1 million each year, just like Letang’s AAV.

That should be enough for Malkin.

If it isn’t, the Penguins need to be prepared to let him walk. Letang took less than he could’ve gotten on the open market this year, as did Bryan Rust. As has Crosby in the past.

Malkin has to know that he can’t grab every penny possible, come back to Pittsburgh, and expect the team to have virtually any extra money to truly improve itself.


Related:

• Ben Roethlisberger sounds off on the Heinz Field name change
• Mark Madden: From Evgeni Malkin to Heinz Field, fans’ priorities are out of whack


Look at the math. Malkin and Letang counted a combined $16.75 million against the cap last year. At $6.1 million apiece this year, that’s $12.2 million. Rust is making an extra $1.6 million than he did last year, and Casey DeSmith will count an extra half-million.

That means those four guys will count approximately $14.3 million. So that’s only $2.45 million in savings versus what Malkin and Letang counted against the cap last year. The theoretical goal was that the franchise could actually keep those two for less money, and spend a little bit in free agency to improve upon a team that has been bounced in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past four seasons.

But even that $2.45 million has evaporated now, too, because that’s almost exactly the difference between Rakell’s adjusted cap hit last year and the $5 million he’ll make this year thanks to his new contract.

Now, according to Cap Friendly, the Penguins have $10,308,158 in salary cap space with 10 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies under contract.

If, at age 35, with two knee surgeries under his belt and signs of decline starting to show, Malkin thinks he can get more than what Hextall offered, he should test free agency. According to Darren Dreger of TSN, Malkin is planning to do just that.

As Dreger points out, Malkin has every right to do so and no one should begrudge him trying the open market for the first time. In line with that, reports from The Athletic suggest that Malkin may not have even gotten that fourth-year offer in the first place.

Regardless, let’s turn off the water works if Malkin leaves. Let’s erase sentimentality as part of the equation when it comes to the importance of “keeping the core together.” Let’s stop pretending that Malkin staying with Letang and Crosby is as important to him as it appears to be for the other two — or the legion of fans on Twitter who are acting as if life as they know it will cease if Malkin ever skates in another team’s jersey.

Frankly, maybe Hextall and the rest of the front office have gotten too caught up in all of that themselves to even let negotiations get this far. If I’m Hextall, I give Malkin until the last minute to sign before free agency hits, then I go out and get the best possible free agent or trade piece to replace Malkin as the second-line center as soon as possible.

Then I leave as little cash as possible remaining on the table and see exactly how important it is for Malkin to play with his brothers then. After signing Rakell on Monday, that’s not going to be very much.

This hardball thing can definitely go two ways.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.


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