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Thursday, June 13, 2013
Penguins, Malkin commit to each other

By Scott Burnside


For Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, it was never about whether he should trade Evgeni Malkin but about whether Malkin wanted to be in Pittsburgh.

Playing alongside a superstar like Sidney Crosby, and thus being in the considerable shadow cast by the talented captain, is not for everyone.

As it turns out, though, it is exactly what suited Malkin.

The two-time scoring champ and former playoff and regular-season MVP has agreed in principle to an eight-year contract extension that will come with an annual cap hit of $9.5 million. The contract kicks in at the start of the 2014-15 season.

"When we spoke, it was clear to me that he wanted to be here," Shero told ESPN.com on Thursday.

"He made it clear he wanted to stay and play in the National Hockey League," the GM added, noting the lure of Kontinental Hockey League money back home in Russia was also an option Malkin had to consider.

In the wake of the Penguins’ shocking sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals -- during which they scored just two goals and went 0-for-15 on the power play -- there was much debate about what changes should be made to the team and the organization.

There was some discussion about whether Shero would be better off to move Malkin, who could have become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, to try to spread out the talent and money on the team as opposed to having two big-time, big-salary centers eating up so much cap space.

But Shero looked at it from a different viewpoint: When you have two of the best centers in the game, don't you do everything in your power to keep them?

The answer was yes, and so he did.

"It's a high number, obviously, with a salary cap," said Shero, who can add and subtract with the best of them. "I do the math. I get it."

But this contract doesn't kick in until the start of the 2014-15 season, and early indications are that the salary cap, which will drop to $64.3 million next season, will rise to pre-lockout levels and beyond by that time. If so, that $9.5 million cap hit may seem less imposing.

So this contract is really about the future and the fact that Crosby and Malkin are now under contract together for the better part of a decade. (The extension Crosby signed last year takes him to 2025 with an $8.7 million annual cap hit, while Malkin's goes until 2022.)

Shero, of course, has been busy since the Pens were eliminated late last week.

In the face of questions about whether he would make a coaching change, Shero extended coach Dan Bylsma and his staff, although longtime coach Gilles Meloche had decided months ago this would be his final season as the team's goaltending instructor.

Now Shero will turn his attention to the immediate future, specifically the makeup of his blue line.

Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang can all become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. The Pens have a handful of good young defensemen who need a shot at playing NHL hockey, so Shero must decide how to integrate those players into the lineup and at what point that integration should begin.

The biggest issue will be with Letang, who has high-end offensive skills but struggled mightily on defense in the playoffs.

In the coming days, Shero will sit down with Letang's agent Kent Hughes to see what the defenseman is looking for in terms of dollars and contract length. The feeling is that if Letang is looking to be paid as much as the league's best defensemen -- say in the $7 million-$8 million range with a seven- or eight-year deal -- it will be difficult for Shero to accommodate him given the other commitments he has made.

If that's the case, look for Shero to begin to immediately explore the trade market for Letang.

The situation is similar to a year ago when Shero began contract extension discussions with center Jordan Staal, whom he thought he could re-up long-term.

"But that turned very quickly," Shero said.

When it did, Shero worked out a blockbuster deal with Carolina at the draft that saw Brandon Sutter, a prospect and a first-round draft pick come to the Penguins in return for Staal.

One imagines a similar scenario unfolding with Letang is possible, if not likely.

“There’s a lot of work to do but a lot of options,” Shero said.