After a record-breaking 15-straight playoff appearances, and a 16th seemingly a given, the Pittsburgh Penguins will head into the 2022 offseason with some difficult questions regarding their core. Once contracts expire, the Penguins will sit with a $51.5MM cap hit for the offseason, leaving $31MM in space, what should feel like a comfortable number. This $51.5MM cap hit includes the $8.7MM cap hit of the still-elite Sidney Crosby, the $6MM cap hit of star Jake Guentzel, goaltender Tristan Jarry, as well as core forward pieces Jason Zucker, Jeff Carter, and Teddy Blueger and all but one of their defensemen.
The problem for Pittsburgh rests with who is a free agent. In addition to key forwards such as Bryan Rust, the newly-acquired Rickard Rakell, and breakout star Evan Rodrigues, the Penguins have Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both hitting unrestricted free agency. Presently, there doesn’t appear to be much concern that Malkin or Letang want to leave Pittsburgh, or that Pittsburgh doesn’t intend to re-sign them. However, Malkin and Letang are still high-caliber assets despite their ages (Letang will be 35 to start next season, and Malkin will be 36), and will be able to still command a fairly significant salary. Malkin currently holds a $9.5MM cap hit, while Letang has a $7.25MM cap hit.
If they were to re-sign for the same cap hits, that would cost the Penguins $16.75MM in cap space, leaving them with just over $14MM. Even if both take discounts to stay in Pittsburgh, the pair will still command a significant salary between the two of them. Due a significant raise is forward and pending UFA Bryan Rust, who has 56 points in 48 games for the Penguins this season, and 154 points in 159 games since a breakout 2019-20 season.
Rust, who is coming off of a four-year, $14MM contract he signed prior to 2018-19, which carries a $3.5MM cap hit, would likely have to sign somewhere between Zucker’s $5.5MM cap hit and Gunetzel’s $6MM cap hit. Recent UFA contracts like Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Kevin Hayes could realistically push Rust above that $6MM number on the open market, however COVID-related issues such as the flat-cap might push Rust into a comparable group of players like Zach Hyman and Jaden Schwartz. As compared to Nelson, Lee, Hayes, Hyman, and Schwartz, Rust should slot comfortably in the $5.5-6MM range.