Re-signing Malkin, Letang is Penguins’ top priority |
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Penguins general manager Ray Shero does not seem to care if the hockey world knows which players will form his franchise’s foundation.

Twice in 2011 he flatly said he would sign key players who within months reached terms on contract extensions. Winger James Neal signed for six years in February, and captain Sidney Crosby agreed to a 12-year extension about four months later.

A few hours after the NHL and Players’ Association agreed on a new labor contract last Sunday, Shero said he “wanted to be in position” to extend the contracts of MVP center Evgeni Malkin and top defenseman Kris Letang this summer.

With training camp set to open Sunday, and the Penguins bookmakers’ favorite to win the Stanley Cup, history indicates Shero will see his plan through and lock up Malkin and Letang.

Precedent is there

Shero inherited a collection of young stars when he replaced Craig Patrick in May 2006 but since then has managed to keep together the Penguins despite the limitations of the salary cap.

Only two players targeted as potential members of the Penguins’ nucleus have turned down long-term contract offers: Winger Marian Hossa in the 2008 offseason and center Jordan Staal in June.

The list of Shero’s targeted keeps: Defenseman Ryan Whitney (2007); Crosby (2007, 2012); Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Brooks Orpik (2008); Staal (2009); Letang (2010); and Neal (2012).

Shero, with help from assistant GM and reputable cap wizard Jason Botterill, has proven masterful at identifying who is worth big bucks over many years.

His success has helped negate the rare blemishes on his record, such as signing defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to multiyear deals together worth $45 million in July 2010 or failing to land free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer.

Luck never hurts

The Penguins are positioned to keep Malkin and Letang because of Shero’s two great offseason disappointments.

Had Hossa signed in 2008, Shero would not have had the cap space to keep Malkin beyond the 2008-09 season. All Malkin has done since signing his first contract extension is win a regular-season and playoff MVP, two scoring titles and the Cup.

Parise’s decision not to sign with the Penguins last July — he was presumed to join the team because of his friendship with Crosby — perhaps is playing out similarly for Shero.

The Penguins’ offer was front-loaded and maxed out at 10 years and $80 million. Parise would have counted for $8 million against the cap, and the last five years of the deal would have been played after his 33rd birthday.

Shero would have had to move Letang this past summer or risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent. The Penguins already project Letang’s $3.5 million annual salary could double.

At 25, Letang remains the youngest regular on defense and already is the Penguins’ most rounded at the position. When current veterans eventually are replaced by untested but talented prospects, Letang will anchor the likes of Simon Despres, Joe Morrow, Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot.

New-look nucleus

Neal’s extension 11 months ago was a risk, but he already had scored 30 goals in the season and finished with 40. A top-10 player in goals and points last season, Neal will prove a bargain at $5 million annually over the next six years if he produces at those levels.

By keeping Neal, Shero set up a cushion for the potential loss of Staal, his first draft pick with the Penguins (second overall, 2006).

Staal never had scored more than 29 goals in any of his six seasons. He was unlikely to rate a bargain on his third contract as he had previously on a $4 million salary.

The Penguins offered Staal a 10-year contract worth about $60 million in June, and Shero said it was made with “the hope Jordan would finish his career in Pittsburgh.”

Staal declined and was traded the next day. From that point, the new nucleus was three holdovers (Crosby, Malkin and Fleury) and two additions (Neal and Letang).

New deal brings help

Under the new labor contract, Shero can offer Malkin and Letang eight-year contracts whereas they could sign only seven-year deals as unrestricted free agents in July 2014.

Malkin said he would like to remain with the Penguins because of Crosby.

“Teams need two great players to win (the) Stanley Cup,” Malkin said. “With Sid here, I always have (the) best chance to win.”

As for Letang: “Sid and Geno are going to be here. That is a good start, right?”

The salary cap is set for $64.3 million next season. The Penguins are committed to 15 players and project about $11.6 million under the cap. They can add space by using one of two compliance buyouts available under the new labor contract.

The benefit of the buyouts is they do not count against the cap; they provide a general manager a mulligan, provided his ownership is willing to pay the buyout.

Penguins majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle have authorized spending to the cap each of the past five seasons. That is not going to change, CEO David Morehouse said.

“We wanted to be in position to re-sign Malkin and Letang,” Shero said last week.

He was not tipping his hand so much as matter-of-factly stating his summer plans.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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