The Pittsburgh Penguins will keep their championship core players together next season in search of another Stanley Cup title, general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday.
“We’ve got some pretty special players that, they’re obviously not in their 20s anymore,” Hextall said. “But they’re still playing at a high level. So we’ll be in win-now mode.”
Hextall said discussions are ongoing on possible contract extensions for center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Malkin, Letang and center Sidney Crosby won Stanley Cup championships with Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017, but they and the Penguins have not gotten past the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three straight seasons.
Pittsburgh finished first in the MassMutual East Division this season but was eliminated in six games by the New York Islanders in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round.
Crosby has four seasons remaining on a 12-year, $104.4 million contract ($8.7 million average annual value) he signed June 28, 2012. Malkin ($9.5 million) and Letang ($7.25 million) will each enter the final season of his contract.
“Not necessarily eager to discuss them right now, but we see a future with this core,” Hextall said.
Crosby has scored six points (three goals, three assists) in his past 14 playoff games, and Malkin has scored two goals in his past 12. Letang had one assist in eight games the previous two postseasons before leading Pittsburgh with six points (one goal, five assists) in the playoffs this season.
Crosby advocated that the Penguins should return intact next season after they were ousted by the Islanders.
“As far as what I can see and how I feel, there’s zero doubt in my mind that the group that we have is a really good group and we had an opportunity here,” Crosby said May 27. “That’s why it stings so much.
“I’ve never been one to try to be GM, and I’m not going to start now. I think those guys (Malkin and Letang) want to win. I know that we’ve been together a long time. I’ve seen how much they care and their commitment. I’ll never doubt or question that.”
Malkin will be 35 years old when next season starts. Crosby and Letang will each be 34. But Hextall said their window to win a fourth championship remains open.
“These guys have been here a long time,” Hextall said. “We had a good year. It certainly didn’t give me pause to think about what we should do with this core. I think we were fifth in the League (at 37-16-3). Goals against (155, tied for 13th-lowest in the NHL), goals for (193, second), all those types of numbers were all good. So it wasn’t a fluke. I expect to have these guys back next year, for sure.”
The future will also include coach Mike Sullivan. Hextall said Sullivan, and the coaching staff as a whole, did a “terrific job” guiding the Penguins through injuries, including a knee injury that kept Malkin out 23 games.
Hextall was hired as general manager and Brian Burke joined Pittsburgh as president of hockey operations Feb. 9 after Jim Rutherford resigned Jan. 27. After one season with Sullivan, Hextall said they agree on how much, or little, the roster should change in the offseason.
“We’re excited about our group,” Hextall said. “Sid, [Letang, Malkin], they’re not in their 20s anymore. But with bringing (center) Jeff Carter in (from the Los Angeles Kings in a trade April 12) and really having a deep team, having a deep team nowadays is important. We’ve got a hardworking team. We’ve got a skilled team. We’ve got a fast team.
“Would we like to add a little bit of size? Of course, we’d like to add a little bit of size, a little bit of toughness. Yes, it would be nice. But there’s not a lot out there. We’ll look at what’s there this summer and we’ll make adjustments, but if we go on to the next season with this group, we’re comfortable.”
That also applies to Tristan Jarry remaining the No. 1 goalie. After taking over for Matt Murray, who was traded to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 7, Jarry was 25-9-3 with a 2.75 goals-against average, a .909 save percentage and two shutouts during the regular season.
Jarry struggled in the playoffs, losing four of six starts with a 3.18 GAA and an .888 save percentage. Backup goalie Casey DeSmith, who was 11-7-0 with a 2.54 GAA, a .912 save percentage and two shutouts this season, was out during the playoffs because of a groin injury.
Hextall said his confidence in the rest of the lineup carries over to Jarry though.
“We do feel like Tristan did a good job for us this year,” Hextall said. “We had very good goaltending from both guys. … We wouldn’t have been where we were without Tristan. We all have to remember, Tristan’s a young player (26). He’s going to learn from this and he’s going to come back better in September.
“We all learn lessons in life. If you’re going to be a goaltender in this league for a long time, you’re going to have your ups and downs as pretty much every guy does.”