Mark Madden: With Evgeni Malkin signed, Penguins’ plan comes together, for better or worse

Ron Hextall executed his plan, and did it well.

Whether or not it’s the correct plan, and how well it works, is yet to be seen.

The Penguins GM kept all four of his marquee free agents, bringing each in at under market value.

Probably. The word is that Evgeni Malkin’s offers in free agency weren’t shaping up to be quite as large or long as he wanted, so he came back to Pittsburgh. The Penguins also would not have found a better, cheaper option in free agency. Younger, yes.

Malkin, Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell and Bryan Rust cost $24.05 million in cap space last season. On their new contracts, they will cost $22.3 million.

Hextall traded term to keep that figure down, but that’s still miraculous.

So, the Penguins have almost the same team that lost in the first round of the playoffs this past season and has changed only marginally while bowing out at that juncture in each of the last four years.

More on Penguins re-signing Evgeni Malkin:

• Tim Benz: Evgeni Malkin’s decision to stay in Pittsburgh softens focus on Rickard Rakell’s contract
• With a new contract in his pocket, many milestones are within reach for Evgeni Malkin
• Penguins re-sign forward Evgeni Malkin to 4-year contract
• Mark Madden: From Evgeni Malkin to Heinz Field, fans’ priorities are out of whack

The Penguins will definitely make the playoffs for a 17th straight season.

But they’re also very likely to rinse and repeat with an early postseason exit. Old players don’t get better. Old teams don’t win Stanley Cups.

The Penguins are still stale. It temporarily seems like a new beginning, because many assumed Malkin and Letang were leaving. But the stench of stagnation still exists.

The Penguins have assembled a lengthy farewell parade for their three stars that will ultimately march right off a cliff.

Perhaps that’s OK. Maybe that’s the best plan. What’s happening is organic. It’s nobody’s fault.

No shortcut to a quick rebuild was available. That had to happen in 2018 or ’19 by getting Malkin to waive his no-movement clause and trading him for what would have been huge, youthful return.

So, Hextall did a good job. But it’s only going to lead to more of the same.

Believing in the Penguins’ core is very understandable given what it has accomplished. Hitting great heights again isn’t likely, but it’s not impossible.

Bad/injured goaltending has been the Penguins’ excuse in each of the last two playoff losses, which is funny.

The citizens rightly think Tristan Jarry should have played better when the Penguins got eliminated by the New York Islanders in 2021. They also think that the Penguins would have beat the New York Rangers this past spring had Jarry not been hurt.

That’s using the same guy to make two diametrically opposed excuses. One says Jarry stinks; one says he’s good. Make up your minds.

Jarry is in the top half of NHL goaltenders. Not sure that Jarry at his best propels the Penguins past Colorado or Tampa Bay. You watched the Stanley Cup Final. Do the aging Penguins somehow match up to that?

If the creaky Penguins are to make a playoff run, they need to get out in front of the chase for a playoff spot, make that a safe bet as early as possible, then practice NBA-style load management. Rest their senior citizens in precise, calculated fashion. Limit Crosby, Malkin and Letang to 65-70 games.

But that won’t ever happen. (Malkin will be hurt a lot, anyway.)

The Penguins also need to temper their style. They need a Plan B. Despite mostly keeping up with the Rangers in their first-round playoff exit, the Penguins are too old to play coach Mike Sullivan’s preferred all-out speed game over the course of an entire season.

But that won’t ever change. (That’s a killer. If the roster doesn’t change, something else should.)

Malkin’s change of heart is amusing. In about a day, Malkin went from saying he would test the open market to signing with the Penguins.

Malkin was likely miffed because retaining him wasn’t the Penguins’ top priority. That was Letang, and rightly so. Disrespect, “do they want me?”, etc.

But then Malkin got some attention, Crosby called him, and he came home to daddy.

It’s a good move for Malkin and the Penguins.

To be a legacy player, you need to stay in one place. As noted, Malkin wasn’t going to be replaced, not exactly.

The Penguins are what they are, and have been. They can start printing the tickets now for their first-round playoff loss. (It might have been worse. But it usually has to get worse to get better.)

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