Ron Cook: Breaking up hard to do for the Penguins


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They were sitting together Sunday at a side table as Penguins officials closed the doors of the team room to the outside world for the final time this hockey season. Evgeni Malkin had his checkbook in hand. Kris Letang appeared to be autographing pictures. Coach Dan Bylsma stood nearby and leaned down to say something to Letang. Somebody should have taken a picture. The three might not be together again.

Bylsma should be back. He doesn't deserve to be fired despite the Penguins being swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final and falling well short of their goal in this Stanley Cup-or-bust season. Even if ownership and general manager Ray Shero blame Bylsma more than stars Malkin, Letang and Sidney Crosby, who did virtually nothing against the Bruins, you would think Shero already would have fired him. Shero owes it to Bylsma to give him his best chance to find another job if the Penguins decide to go in another direction. There have been reports from New York that the Rangers are waiting to see what happens with Bylsma before filling their coaching job.

Malkin likely also will be back, although Shero would be a fool not to see what he could get for him in a trade. It is not outrageous to suggest the Penguins' two-star model with Crosby and Malkin isn't working. The team has had disappointing, premature exits from the playoffs the past four seasons in large part because Crosby and Malkin have underachieved or been injured.

Crosby signed a 12-year, $104.4 million contract last summer. He isn't going anywhere. Malkin, who is signed through next season with an $8.7 million salary-cap hit, is due for a big raise in a new deal this summer, perhaps more than $12 million a year. Something doesn't seem right about paying Malkin that much more than Crosby even though Crosby has said he would understand if Malkin gets more. In any case, that's a lot of money to pay two players who have not justified their huge salary in the postseason. For now, at least, the Crosby-Malkin pairing has to be considered a significant bust, even though the Penguins won the Cup in 2009.

There is another side to all that, of course.

Malkin turns 27 in July, Crosby 26 in August. Each should have many great seasons left, although both -- especially Crosby -- have been injury-prone.

"They are 1 and 1A as the two best players in the world," Crosby linemate Pascal Dupuis said Sunday. "Why wouldn't you want to keep them both?"

"I don't think you want to mess with them too much," Penguins winger Brenden Morrow said. "You could throw some meat and potatoes with those guys and have a heck of a hockey team. You keep those guys and [Letang] and you're going to have a heck of a hockey team for a long time here."

That's why Malkin almost certainly will be here with Crosby for many more years.

But Letang?

He's gone, right?

He has to be gone.

Letang is signed through next season with a $3.5 million cap hit. As with Malkin, this summer is the time for the Penguins to try to do a new contract with him. It is believed he will be looking for $7 million or more per season. He probably could get that on the open market as a free agent in 2014.

That's way too much for the Penguins to spend on Letang, especially if they are planning on keeping Malkin.

Letang is a finalist this season for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the NHL's best defenseman. He is 26 and could win many Norris Trophies before his career is done. He is a brilliant offensive player with amazing skills.

But, against the Bruins, Letang wasn't very good running the Penguins' power play, which went 0 for 15. He again was a defensive liability through much of the playoffs. Just one example: Letang's horrendous clearing pass up the middle of the ice against the Bruins in Game 2 was intercepted by defenseman Torey Krug and led to a goal by winger Nathan Horton. That sort of thing happens too often with Letang. He was on the ice for seven of the Bruins' 12 goals and was a minus-5 in the series.

The Penguins don't have much young depth at forward after Beau Bennett and could bring some in by trading the highly marketable Letang. They are stacked with young defensemen even after trading Joe Morrow to Dallas in March for Brenden Morrow. Bylsma said Sunday he sees Simon Despres as a top-four guy next season. Robert Bortuzzo has NHL experience. Coming quickly in the system are highly regarded prospects Scott Harrington, Olli Maata, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin.

Letang said Sunday he hopes to play for the Penguins for many more years, calling the franchise "the best organization in the league" and saying it is, "from head to toe, world-class." He talked of his disappointment in falling short of the Cup. "We had a great group. Not one of these guys I would trade for anybody."

All of the Penguins called it "a special team." The problem is they failed badly against the Bruins, who will play the Chicago Blackhawks for the Cup. Change is necessary. Change will happen.

Letang is expendable and will bring back plenty in a trade.

It's nice to think somebody took that picture of Bylsma, Malkin and Letang. Surely, Letang will be willing to autograph copies for the other two.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published June 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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