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Penguins Most Difficult Replacement: Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang?

The Pittsburgh Penguins have options to replace both future Hall of Famers.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are navigating uncharted territory this offseason, with two of their best players in team history less than two months away from entering free agency. 

The Penguins took care of business with Bryan Rust and signed him to a six-year extension, but whether Malkin or Letang get the same treatment remains to be seen. 

With so much uncertainty in the air, it begs the question: who would be harder to replace, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang?

The Case for Malkin

How do you replace a player like Evgeni Malkin? He's a generational superstar with the hardware to back it up. He's entering into the twilight of his career, but his statistics don't seem to reflect that. 

After missing half of the regular season, he returned to put up 42 points in 41 games. Is he the same dominant force he was 10 years ago? Absolutely not. But is he still a top tier second line center? Absolutely yes. 

The other factor in this equation is potential replacements. Let's take a look at some of top forwards that are expected to be available in free agency. 

Johnny Gaudreau (28 years old)

  • 2021/2022 stats: 
    • 40 goals
    • 75 assists
    • 115 points

Filip Forsberg (27 years old)

  • 42 goals
  • 42 assists
  • 84 points

Nazem Kadri (31 years old)

  • 28 goals
  • 59 assists
  • 87 points

Vinny Trocheck (28 years old)

  • 21 goals
  • 30 assists
  • 51 points

There are several intriguing options available out of these four, and all could add something positive to the Penguins. 

Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg are not customarily centers, but they are the most talented forwards available. If the Penguins could acquire either, it would add considerable scoring depth for a team desperate to win another Stanley Cup. 

Otherwise, that leaves Kadri and Trocheck as the only true centers that produce enough to play on the Penguins second line. Both players are more youthful and durable options compared to Malkin, but would they be suitable replacements? 

It's unclear if any of these players would be upgrades or downgrades over Malkin, but there are certainly reasons for optimism that a replacement is out there. 

The Case for Letang

Kris Letang is undeniably the most accomplished defenseman while wearing a Penguins uniform, ever. The blue line has been built around him for a decade plus, and it's a distinct possibility that Pittsburgh will be looking for a new building block very soon. 

Kris Letang is aging as gracefully as anyone in the league, posting a new career high in assists and points in his age 34/35 season. His 68 points this season put him in the top-10 amongst all NHL defenseman in scoring, while also averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game. 

His biggest weakness is turnovers, but he does so much good it far outweighs the bad. He's an elite defenseman and will no doubt seek a commensurate contract both in salary and term. 

Like Malkin, a huge part of this decision has to do with the available options for replacement. The defensive free agent pool is generally weaker than the forward one. 

Here are some of the notable ones that will be available. 

John Klingberg (29 years old)

  • 6 goals
  • 41 assists
  • 47 points

Josh Manson (30 years old) 

  • 6 goals
  • 10 assists
  • 16 points

Justin Schultz (31 years old)

  • 4 goals
  • 19 assists
  • 23 points

PK Subban (33 years old)

  • 5 goals
  • 17 assists
  • 22 points

The only notable option in this list is John Klingberg. He's a slick, puck moving defenseman, but he is also not as productive as Letang. 

He also is six years younger than Letang, and he is sure to cost a premium to acquire. 

The others on this list are suitable depth defensemen, but provide nowhere near the same level of play Letang already brings. The Penguins would probably be better served pursuing replacements via trade, should they decide to move on.

The Decision

Both of these players would be huge losses for the Penguins. Having to replace a second line center and top pairing defenseman leaves the Penguins in a worse place than they currently are. But with all of the offensive players available and the lack of suitable replacement defensemen, the decision has to favor Letang. 

In the current market, the Penguins could more easily find another second line center than another top pairing defenseman. And while there are players available that have similar offensive numbers to Malkin, there are no players on the market or their current roster who can take over all of the ice time Letang currently plays. 

It's clear both players would be incredibly challenging to replace, but due to the expansive role Letang plays and the limited alternatives available, replacing him seems to be the tougher task. 

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