MONTREAL — Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ron Hextall expressed quite a bit of optimism that he will be able to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Kris Letang.
As far as the Penguins’ other franchise pillar scheduled to go to market July 13, forward Evgeni Malkin, Hextall’s tone was considerably different.
Following the NHL’s general managers’ meetings the day before the start of the league’s draft, Hextall held court with media and talked about Letang and Malkin as well as a handful of other topics.
With regard to Letang, Hextall made it seem like a new contract is all but signed.
“Kris, I’m hoping to have something done real soon here,” Hextall said. “We have a few details we’re working through. We’ll see where it goes.”
Letang, 35, is coming off a career year in 2021-22. In 78 games, Letang had career-high 68 points (10 goals, 58 assists) while averaging 25 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time per contest, fourth most in the NHL among non-goaltenders. He is about to complete an eight-year contract with a salary cap hit of $7.25 million.
Hextall indicated he hopes to complete a deal with Letang before the draft concludes Friday.
As for Malkin, Hextall was ambiguous over his status.
“We’re still working,” Hextall said. “I’ve spoken to (Malkin’s agent) as recently as (Tuesday) night. We’ll see where it goes.
“I’d be surprised if we don’t get Kris done. (Malkin), we’re still working at it. They’re at a different stage right now.”
Malkin, who turns 36 on July 31, missed most of the first half of the season in 2021-22 after offseason surgery to his right knee. In 41 games, he scored 42 points (20 goals, 21 assists). Malkin is in the final year of an eight-year contract with a salary cap hit of $9.5 million.
Hextall declined to get into specifics regarding salary or term for new contracts with either player. According to Cap Friendly, the Penguins have $21,408,158 of projected salary cap space to operate with.
“Our two biggest priorities were (Letang and Malkin),” Hextall said. “And they still are.”
Hextall indicated a preference to have the fates of Letang and Malkin squared away before addressing other pending free agents. At the same time, he acknowledged the time to potentially re-sign anybody before the free agent signing period opens July 13 is dwindling.
“Certainly more comfortable doing it that way (addressing Letang and Malkin first),” Hextall said. “But as we get closer to the date, we’ve got to look at everything and try to make all the pieces fit. … We’re getting down to that date now where we’ve got to make some decisions.”
Most notably, players such as forwards Rickard Rakell and Evan Rodrigues are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next week, and forwards Danton Heinen, Kasperi Kapanen and defenseman PO Joseph are pending restricted free agents.
On Tuesday, the Penguins addressed one notable segment of their roster when they re-signed backup goaltender Casey DeSmith to a two-year contract extension worth $1.8 million.
DeSmith, 30, has served as the team’s backup for three of the past four seasons.
“You look at the market (for goaltenders), there’s not a lot out there,” Hextall said. “Casey’s a pretty good goalie. He’s played pretty well for us. He’s well liked. He fits in well. He it was a bit of a no-brainer for us.”
Hextall indicated DeSmith is fully recovered from core muscle surgery he underwent after suffering a season-ending groin injury during Game 1 of a first-round series with the New York Rangers on May 3.
As for the draft, Hextall suggested the Penguins are not likely to move up from their position in the first round (No. 21 overall).
“We don’t have a whole lot of (assets) to move up,” Hextall said. “So I can’t imagine that happening. If anything, we’d move back.”
In addition to the first round, the Penguins currently have selections in the fourth round (No. 118 overall), fifth round (No. 150 overall), round six (No. 182 overall) and round seven (No. 214 overall).