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Monday, August 8, 2022

Tim Benz: Watching the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup celebration gives Penguins fans a lot to consider

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby got so much love during the Colorado Avalanche’s championship celebration, I thought he was going to come on the ice and skate a lap with the Stanley Cup.

First, Avs star (and fellow Nova Scotian) Nathan MacKinnon told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that he felt destined to win the clinching Game 6 over the Tampa Bay Lightning because his hotel room number was 1787. As Pittsburghers may be aware by now, Crosby wears No. 87.

MacKinnon and Crosby are good friends. To the degree that after the game, MacKinnon told reporters he hopes Crosby comes to his Stanley Cup celebration, just as MacKinnon was at Crosby’s in 2016 and 2017.

Maybe in an altered state of mind.

Of course that led to some online chatter and sports talk speculation. “Hey, if Sid and MacKinnon are such good friends, maybe MacKinnon will sign in Pittsburgh after his contract expires following the 2022-23 season ends.”

Fat chance. Given where that Colorado franchise is and the wobbly state of affairs the Penguins are in right now in terms of a potential roster rebuild, I think it may be the other way around.

I think there is more of a chance MacKinnon gets a long-term extension with the Avs and Crosby is in Denver after his contract ends following 2025 than vice versa.

Honestly, I’m 99% sure neither of those eventualities will happen. But I’d bet on the second thing long before I’d bet on the first.

Here are a few other items that came to mind from a Penguins perspective while watching the Avalanche skate around the rink in Tampa Bay with the Cup over their heads.

• The Penguins are so far away from being at the level of the Avalanche and Lightning it’s almost silly to talk about how quickly they can ascend to those heights.

After watching those two teams play each other, it’s comical for me to consider a scenario in which the Penguins would beat either team in a best-of-seven series.

Too many people are doing the reductionist thinking of: “Well, the Penguins took the Rangers to seven games without Tristan Jarry and Crosby for part of the series. Then the Rangers almost took the Lightning to seven games. So, ipso facto, the Penguins are almost as good as the Avalanche.”

I know we want to act like the Jacob Trouba hit on Crosby changed everything. And for that first round series against the Rangers, it did.

However, any other presumption beyond that is just, well … presumptuous.

• If the Penguins are trying to improve to be as good as those two teams, simply keeping defenseman Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin isn’t the answer.

Retaining both of those players is merely a hope to keep the Penguins close to being as good as they were last year. That means sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference.

The Avs and Lightning are clearly the two best teams in the league. If the Penguins hold on to those two players for roughly the combined $16.7 million cap hit they cost last year, the team won’t have a chance to get better. It’ll just hope to be the same and get a little luckier in the playoffs.

That’s it.

• Colorado’s Cale Makar won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman and the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP. He makes $9 million a year.

Since Letang has three Stanley Cup rings and finished in the top-10 of the Norris Trophy balloting, expect his agent to ask for something close to that average annual value — even though Letang is 35 and Makar is only 23. After all, Letang cost $7.5 million against the cap over the last eight years, and he just set a career high in points with 68.

Anyone who saw Makar play in the postseason would argue that stance is baseless. They’d be right. But expect Letang to shoot for a number somewhere in that stratosphere anyway.

And expect him to get it. If not from the Penguins, then from someone else.

• The prospect of free-agent goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury coming back to Pittsburgh has been raised again. I think that makes no sense because Jarry is here.

Frankly, I think Fleury to the Avs makes a lot more sense. They won the Cup with the combination of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz in net. Fleury is better than those guys. Kuemper is also about to become a free agent. And Francouz is only making $2 million.

Colorado should sign Fleury. If not, and the Penguins really want to reacquire Fleury, they should ask Colorado what they’d give up for Jarry. As we’ve outlined already, Jarry’s numbers are every bit as good or better than Kuemper’s and Francouz’s. Plus, Jarry is under contract for one more year at just $3.5 million. So he’ll be cheaper than whatever Kuemper gets on the open market.

BetRivers.com opened with Penguins at +2500 to win the Stanley Cup. That’s 11th on the odds board. I’d sooner take $100 and light it on fire before betting on the Penguins without knowing if Letang and Malkin are coming back.

Honestly, I’d feel the same way if they do come back. Or, frankly, if they don’t.

But if you are dead set on betting on the Pens to win the Cup just for fun, then watch the headlines. Keep up with the news. And the minute a decision is made on Malkin and Letang get ready to put your money down.

Because if those guys stay, the line will shrink. It’ll be perceived as the Penguins “making one more run and keeping the core together.” So the odds will get more narrow.

If they both leave, watch the line expand as people stay away from betting on a rebuild. So get in at that point as the payoff will undoubtedly get bigger.

• I don’t think the Lightning run is done.

Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point all have multiple years left on their contracts.

They will be like what the Penguins have been, haunting the Eastern Conference for years to come. I bet this core hoists at least one more Stanley Cup before it is broken up.

In this week’s hockey podcast with Brian Metzer, Tim Benz and Brian talk about the future of the Penguins. They wrap up the Stanley Cup Final. And they dig into some 2022 NHL offseason speculation.

Listen: Tim Benz and Brian Metzer talk about the Penguins’ future

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.


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