Maybe you went through something similar when it came to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang remaining as the core of the team moving forward.
This seasoned sports journalist was caught a little off guard, truth be told, by slowly reaching the opinion that keeping those three together was the right move.
By far the right move.
The transformation started predictably enough with accepting the idea that Malkin and/or Letang could be moving on in free agency this summer. Even embracing the notion that perhaps it was time for the team to do some rebuilding and refreshing around Crosby, who has three more years on his contract and certainly isn’t going anywhere.
But the more the situation was analyzed and scrutinized, and especially the more some advocated for moving on, the more a nagging thought grew into a full-blown reaction – that those calling for a refresh over a reboot were wrong.
So when Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin were eventually re-signed, and each at a workable cap hit of $6.1 million, it seemed as if Penguins general manager Ron Hextall had won the offseason.
That reaction was not only built over several weeks or months, but it was also multi-pronged.
Sure, there was logic to breaking up the band. The three are in their mid-30s. The Penguins have won just one playoff series since the three stars collected their third Stanley Cup together in 2017. It was going to be difficult to re-sign Malkin and Letang and still assemble a potentially contending team under a fairly stagnant salary cap. It was folly to foist emotion over business sense.
And that’s not to mention a fact that did not trust Malkin in particular to play at a level close enough to his dominant prime to be worth bringing back for multiple years.
Pittsburgh Penguins Emotion
The flip side initially seemed flimsier. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to see the three of them finish their careers together with the Penguins, see if maybe they could win a couple more playoff rounds? After the three of them have played 16 years together, change would be icky.
But you know what? That’s not so flimsy upon further thought.
Breaking up the core could have easily backfired. Take it from someone who, before the pandemic, had spent as much time as just about any reporter in the Penguins locker room: Those three are the heart and personality of the team, and they personify the idea that the sum can be better than its parts, even though those parts are pretty damned good.
That’s not trite; it’s the truth. At least, it’s the truth on a team that has Crosby as its captain and compass.
Crosby is not a squeaky wheel, but he is a creature of habit. Keeping him happy and comfortable has tangible benefits, and he made it abundantly clear he was hopeful that Malkin and Letang would return. He already lost another core player and friend, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, several years ago.
There is also the business side of the re-signings.
Letang is a special talent, and it’s doubtful the Penguins could have replaced their top defenseman adequately through a trade or NHL free agency, particularly at that price. He’s also a workout freak who seems to defy Father Time.
Malkin seemed fine after major knee surgery last year, and while he might not be as fast or dominant as he once was, he is still arguably one of the very best second-line centers in the NHL, and, like Letang, probably could not have been reasonably replaced at his salary cap hit.
Sure, it’s possible Malkin’s skills will erode before his four-year deal is up. That might even seem more likely than Letang’s skills eroding in his six years. That initial thought eventually gave way to one more like, it’s still worth it.
As for those four straight opening-round playoff losses, having them repeatedly brought up as a reason to rebuild might have had the biggest influence on a transformed opinion on Malkin and Letang. Those flameouts were primarily the product of goaltending and injury situations – not excuses, but legitimate extenuating circumstances that do not speak to whether the Big Three are still good enough to lead the team to a longer playoff run.
Lastly, in the moments when a sports writer softens a bit to consider the fan perspective, came the acknowledgment that the team just would not seem like the Pittsburgh Penguins with Letang and/or Malkin playing somewhere else.
The rebuild will come eventually. For now, who knows what the three guys with a combined three Stanley Cups, one Calder Trophy, four Art Ross trophies, two Rocket Richard trophies, four Lester Pearson/Ted Lindsay awards, three Conn Smythe trophies and three Hart trophies might still have in the tank?
There is nothing wrong in finding out, with the three long-time stars and teammates getting a chance to each finish their career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It should be an interesting ride. Which is the crux of one person’s evolution opinion: Isn’t that the type of story line that makes sports worth following?