As multiple media sources predicted over the weekend, defenseman Kris Letang has signed an eight-year, $58-million contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins, keeping him with the franchise through the 2021-22 season.
The new deal won’t activate until next summer, so the Penguins will have a year before they have to start paying out a combined $45.2 million to eight players, headlined by Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 MM), Sidney Crosby ($8.7), Letang ($7.25), James Neal ($5.0), Paul Martin ($5.0) and Marc-Andre Fleury ($5.0).
Malkin, Kunitz and Letang have each committed to extensions in the past month. Because of the 12-month delay before they activate, the Penguins and general manager Ray Shero still have nearly $8 million in space under the 2013-14 salary cap, which is set for $64.3 million.
The Pens have 18 players under contract for next season, not counting the likely retention of restricted free agents Dustin Jeffrey and Robert Bortuzzo. Shero and his staff are currently attending to negotiations with representatives for Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams, who will all become unrestricted free agents Friday.
Cooke and Adams can probably be kept around for reasonable prices, but with Letang locked in for the next nine years, the chances of Dupuis sticking around town just got quite slim. At 33, Dupuis is reportedly seeking at least a four-year contract at around $4 million per season, a cap hit and term length the Penguins will have a difficult time justifying.
On the other hand, the reprieve before the new contract extensions kick in could allow the Penguins to pursue relatively lucrative short-term deals with free agents on the market. Additionally, a trade or two could open up the cap space to more extensive roster renovations.
As for Letang, the 26-year-old is now the third-highest paid blueliner in the NHL, judging by average annual value. Only Ryan Suter ($7.538 MM) and Shea Weber ($7.5) will count for more dollars against the salary cap than Letang, assuming no larger deals are signed over the next 12 months.
Letang was nominated for the Norris Trophy for the first time this season, an award that honors the NHL’s top defenseman. Despite missing 13 games, he recorded 38 points to tie Montreal’s P.K. Subban for the league lead among rearguards. Letang put up 16 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs before he, like most of the Penguins, was shut down by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final.
His noticeable struggles in that round soured some on his value as a franchise defenseman, but Shero and the Penguins are certainly sold on Letang’s continued progression. After playing more than 25 minutes per game in the regular season and 27-plus in the postseason, Letang is indisputably part of the Pens’ bedrock.
Now he’ll be paid like it, and for a long time.