Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and the end of the road for the Penguins Big 3

It was a great day in Anaheim four months ago and the Penguins had just finished practice at Honda Center. Outside on a sunny California afternoon stood Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. They quietly studied their phones while standing together next to the team bus, considering dinner plans, looking more like aristocrats than hockey players.

Of course, they are hockey royalty. Penguin royalty, in particular. Three Stanley Cups, 3,605 combined points and 15 years of memories speak for themselves.

Fifteen years, however, is a very long time for a hockey royal to remain. These three can dine together as much as they want in the future, but how many dinners are left with the trio dressed in black and gold?

There’s a very real chance that Crosby, Malkin and Letang will play their final playoffs together starting Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in a showdown with the Rangers. The Big Three are not at all interested in discussing the future, even though all three are very aware of the reality.

“You just try to enjoy it as much as you can,” Crosby said. “Because you know it’s not something that’s going to last forever.”

Crosby still has three years left on his contract. His longtime teammates Malkin and Letang are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

General manager Ron Hextall has discussed a new contract with representatives of Malkin and Letang and, although the conversations were cordial, a deal is not reached with either player. In two months, Malkin and Letang will be free to sign elsewhere if no agreement is reached with Hextall.

Representatives for Malkin have told the Penguins the future Hall of Famer is ready to play for less than the $9.5 million he’s earned annually for most of the past decade. In January, Malkin even joked, “I’m a really rich guy,” explaining that he doesn’t need a great deal to return to Pittsburgh.

He also remains a point-per-game player and box office attraction who doesn’t wish to be underestimated.

Letang, meanwhile, just set a career high with 68 points in the 2021-22 season. The current NHL landscape pays defensemen more lucrative salaries than ever before. Especially right-handed defenders. Especially gifted defenders offensively. What makes things even more daunting for the Penguins is that Kent Hughes, Letang’s longtime agent, is now the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. Letang is from Montreal and is very proud of his French heritage. At 35, his performance remains at a high level and he is not interested in a pay cut.

“We’ll see,” Brian Burke, president of hockey operations for the Penguins, said recently. Athleticism. “We had discussions. We have made progress. But we are in no rush. »

It’s been a different season for the three Penguins stars.

  • Crosby’s season has been one of frustration followed by brilliance. He missed the start of the season while recovering from wrist surgery. He then looked completely out of sorts upon his return, only to miss more games after facing a nasty bout of COVID-19. He had just three points in his first eight games, leading some to wonder if Crosby might not be at the start of a big downturn. Then, in the blink of an eye towards the end of November, he was Crosby again and played at MVP level for the rest of the season.
  • Malkin made his season debut on that trip to Anaheim, and his season has been a microcosm of the good and bad characteristics that make him unique. He’s scored 20 goals in 41 games, putting him on a 40-goal pace, which is quite exceptional for a 35-year-old with less than a year of ACL surgery. Malkin was also the team’s worst under 10 and struggled at even strength at times. At the time of his return, Malkin was more jovial and comfortable with the media than ever before. He has also not spoken to the media since his native Russia invaded Ukraine, and those close to him confirm that the ongoing war has had a significant mental impact on him.
  • Letang had one of his best seasons. In the first three months of the season, he operated at performances close to Norris Trophy level. He had a bit of a lull later in the season, but Letang’s campaign never went off the rails and he played very well down the line. Away from the ice, there was something more refined, more mature about Letang this season. Starting in training camp, he spoke with a wisdom that was not always present in his early years, when pride and impulsiveness often dictated his overall personality. Maybe he grew up. Maybe he’s on his best behavior because it’s a contract year. Or maybe Letang wants his senior year in Pittsburgh to be peaceful. He alone knows.

With Crosby, Malkin and Letang under contract, the Penguins have won 20 playoff series in the past 15 years. They were the NHL’s winningest regular season and playoff team during that streak.

They also lost four consecutive series, starting in 2018 when the Capitals finally killed their arch-nemesis while ending the Penguins’ three-round attempt.

Once known for their youth, explosive talent and precociousness, the Penguins are the old men of this postseason. Crosby, Malkin and Letang are now regularly asked about things like “playoff experience,” which is a more polite way of asking a player if they’re too old to win another championship.

“The playoffs are a different animal,” Letang said. “The intensity is much higher.”

The Big Three would know. The Penguins did not make the playoffs in Crosby’s rookie season. Then came Malkin and Letang, and they haven’t missed the playoffs since.

Typically the Penguins are the favorites, but not anymore. Not after losing four straight series. And not after the slumber they were in for the last month of the regular season.

Playing the scorching Rangers in the first round makes things even trickier.

Three teams – the Rangers, Islanders and Canadiens – knocked the Penguins out of the playoffs twice during the Big Three era. Rangers may become the first team to beat them three times in a series and possibly the team that ends an era.

“People have been talking about it for three years,” Letang said of the possibility of him or Malkin — or both — moving on after this season. “We all know that. We don’t have to discuss it. We know what it is.

There’s a hint of resignation in Letang’s tone, as if he might know something that everyone else doesn’t.

“We have to erase everything we’ve done against them (Rangers) all year and show our true selves,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time. When you have that hard core, you have confidence in what you can deliver. If we are underdogs, fine. It’s OK. I trust the guys around me.

Trust is built over time, and these three have been together for half their respective lives.

“We just see it as an opportunity to consolidate what we’ve done throughout our careers in Pittsburgh,” Letang said. “Maintaining it. That’s our priority. That’s what we’re talking about. Winning another one.

The puck will drop at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the world’s most famous arena, which would be a fitting stage for the end of an era, or another chapter of brilliance in the glory days of Penguins hockey.

“They’re really good,” Letang said. “I think we do too. We want to prove that we still belong in the dance.

Even if it’s the last.

(Photo: Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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