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How will the Penguins handle one of their most unpredictable offseasons ever? Yohe mailbag

Happy summer, hockey fans.

A portion of the summer is a dead zone for anyone interested in talking about and reading about hockey. We generally refer to it as August. July, however, is going to be off the charts.

The NHL Draft takes place in Montreal July 7-8. Then, on July 13, the opening of the unrestricted free agency period will consume your thoughts. Before or after, we’ll learn if Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have skated for the final time as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

We have much to discuss. Away we go …

(Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.)

Do you think Ron Hextall and Brian Burke feel any kind of urgency to get Letang and Malkin’s contracts done? — @OtterLord69

I don’t particularly have that sense. I’ve been told that the Penguins’ front office is prioritizing Letang at the moment, which isn’t necessarily to say that Letang will stay and that Malkin is gone. There is a sense, though, that the Penguins deem Letang as the more important of the two, largely because of the position he plays. For all of Letang’s maddening mishaps, the Penguins still very much view him as a No. 1 defenseman who thrives under Todd Reirden. He still consumes an enormous amount of minutes. They’d like to have him back but also realize that signing him is going to require a lot of money and a lot of years. Right now, they’re focusing on him.

I wonder how this is making Malkin feel. There’s absolutely no question that Malkin wants to end his career in Pittsburgh and is willing to take a pay cut. But how big of one? The Penguins aren’t interested in overpaying for his services. I do believe they want him back — Hextall said so at his postseason press conference, though that could have been lip service — but only at their price. I sense they are very firm about this.

But to answer your question … no, I don’t sense much urgency. They’ve had ample time to get these guys signed. I realize they wanted to see Malkin perform post-ACL surgery, which was smart. But still. They’ve had a year to get this Letang deal done. And nothing. They’ve had time to get a Malkin deal done. And nothing. We are 20 days out from the start of free agency. So, these deals may well get done, but they don’t appear to be in a rush.

Why would they be interested in bringing back both Malkin and Letang? Are the Penguins satisfied with winning in the regular season and losing in the first round of the playoffs? — @de6658

Well, here’s the question that must be asked. If you don’t bring Malkin and Letang back, then what’s your Plan B? Which replacements out there will be better and fit into the Penguins’ salary structure? I’m not saying there aren’t answers out there, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “They lose in the first round every year, so you can’t bring those two back.”

On one level, yes, it is frustrating for the fan base knowing that it’s been more than four years since the Penguins won a playoff series. There are, however, many excuses that are utterly valid. Think Tampa Bay would have beaten Toronto with its third-string goalie? Think the Rangers would have beaten the Penguins with their third-string goalie? The injuries to Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith were excruciatingly unlucky. The year before, Jarry was simply terrible against the Islanders, who were outplayed by the Penguins. The year before that was a tournament in Toronto that probably shouldn’t have even been played. It wasn’t real.

I can’t blame Malkin or Letang for any of that.

If Geno doesn’t sign with the Penguins, where will he end up? — @wG_Slick

Any time Malkin trade rumors pop up, Florida is the first team we discuss. Malkin and his wife, Anna, have a home in South Florida, after all. It makes perfect sense.

But do the Panthers have any interest in him? I doubt it. They’re already absolutely loaded at forward. It would seem like a stretch.

Logistically speaking, Washington would make a ton of sense. It seems certain that Nicklas Backstrom is out for next season — and maybe his career — after having major hip surgery last week. The Capitals could use a top-six center. Malkin seems on better terms with Alex Ovechkin now than earlier in their respective careers.

Still, that one seems like a long shot, too. It’s all a mystery. From what I’ve heard, Malkin considers himself a Penguin for life and hasn’t really considered other NHL teams.

What does the ideal offseason look like for Ron Hextall? — @YaboyPD

Letang and Malkin sign for much cheaper than expected. Hextall finds takers for Jason Zucker’s and Marcus Pettersson’s contracts. With the extra money available, Hextall signs a veteran backup goalie to push Tristan Jarry, a winger for Malkin and a valuable bottom-six piece.

Josh, realize the sport is a business and churn is part of covering the team, but what player(s) were you sad to see traded/sign elsewhere? — @rlnotstine

Oh, there have been many. I’m a big believer that you can objectively cover a team but still have your favorites. We’re all people, you know? It was tough seeing Marc-Andre Fleury leave for Vegas. At locker room cleanout day after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2017, we all knew he was gone. It was a given. More than 20 of us lined up, single file, to say goodbye to him. He’s always chatty so it took forever. I was last in line. Gave him a big hug. I covered him for eight years and enjoyed every second of it. That locker room hasn’t been the same since he left.

There have been others, of course. Ian Cole is one of my favorite players of all time. A funny man. If you knew him, you’d like him. Matt Cullen was a gem, as well. Others on my all-time favorite list include Ben Lovejoy, Robert Bortuzzo, Matt Niskanen, Brent Johnson, Deryk Engelland, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham and Pascal Dupuis.

What has surprised you most about the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final this year? — @Yinzer78

Not a ton. I still see cheap shots going unpunished, obvious penalties being ignored. You know, the usual. That said, I see offensive-minded teams being rewarded more than in the past, which is a great thing. Scoring is up. So are TV ratings. Funny how that works.

I’m surprised Tampa Bay made it out of the mighty Eastern Conference. That was really extraordinary because I believe they are running on fumes and that they have been for quite some time.

As for the Final, I’m not surprised by much of what I’ve seen. I picked the Avs in six and I suspect they’ll end it in five. Tampa looked absolutely gassed in overtime in Game 4. Now the Bolts get to travel back across the country and into the high altitude where the Avs — and the Cup — will be waiting. I don’t like their odds, though I respect them so much that I never dismiss them, either.

What will happen with Marc-Andre Fleury? — @GoPensZigg8771

It’s one of the most compelling stories of the offseason. I think he’d be willing to finish his career in Pittsburgh, but I’m not sure how Penguins management feels about that. Hextall wasn’t all that interested in him last summer.

The logical place for Fleury is Edmonton. Talk about a talented team that needs a goalie. But I’ve long been under the impression that he wouldn’t be thrilled about playing in a Canadian market.

He can still play, though I don’t think he operated at the same level last season. (Playing behind a bad Chicago team surely had something to do with that, however.) It’s going to be interesting.

What are the chances that Brian Boyle returns to the Penguins again next year? — @MrSparkle58

It’s possible, but unlikely. He certainly exceeded expectations last year, cracking double digits in goals and giving the Penguins a sound penalty killer. But he’ll be 38 next season and the Penguins badly need to get younger. I’d be surprised if he’s back.

Question 1: Where would the Lightning Dynasty rank if they can capture a third straight Cup? Question 2: Is Kris Letang a Hall of Famer? Question 3: Will you purchase an Oneil Cruz Pirates jersey?  — @JChergi

Early childhood neighbors get to ask three questions.

1. The Bolts are quite a team. They’ve won two straight Cups and have made three straight Final appearances. They also reached the Cup Final in 2015, where they lost to the Blackhawks, and the conference finals in 2016 and 2018, where they lost to the Penguins and Capitals, respectively, in Game 7s. It’s been an astonishing run.

If they come back and beat the Avs in seven — I don’t think it’s happening — they will, in my view, be comparable to the early 80s Islanders and the mid-80s Oilers. Salary caps didn’t exist then. They do now. Of course, the Lightning have turned manipulating the cap into an artform, but still. They are a team for all time if they pull this comeback off. And even if they don’t, it’s fair to consider them a mini-dynasty at least.

2. No, I’ve never viewed Letang as a Hall of Famer. He never won a Norris and was only a finalist once. That will make it very difficult for him to ever get in, even if he’ll have the numbers and the rings to make a case.

3. I haven’t purchased a Pirates jersey since I bought a Clemente jersey in 2001, before PNC Park opened. So I don’t see that happening anytime soon. That said, Cruz is fun to watch. I don’t know how good he’ll become, though I think he has star potential. Whatever the case may be, the Pirates have been boring for so long. I find myself making sure the game is on my TV when I know he’ll bat in a given inning. Something to be said for that.

How much of a priority should re-signing Rickard Rakell be? — @Alecander95

It would be ideal. He’s a good player and more well-rounded than I previously realized. He has some sandpaper in his game to go along with his very high skill level.

I have to think, on the open market, he’s a $5 million per year player. Were I Hextall, I’d want to bring him back. However, I think a contract or two needs to be moved before then to make it happen. He’s not the top priority for the Penguins, but he’d be a nice luxury to bring back. Should he sign elsewhere, the Penguins would definitely be in need of a top-six winger. In Rakell, they have a good one.

How is Mike Lange doing these days? Enjoying retirement? — @Jordan16Falkner

I believe he is. I check in with him periodically. We last chatted during Game 3 of the Penguins’ series against the Rangers. He was certainly enjoying watching the hockey.

His health wasn’t the best when he retired, but here’s hoping retirement has been best for him. If you’re building a Mount Rushmore of the most important figures in franchise history, he’s on it. And I say that without hesitation. Mario. Sidney Crosby. Probably Jagr. And Mike Lange. That’s how important he was to the franchise, especially in the 1970s and early 80s, when people only knew about the Penguins in Pittsburgh because of him.

How much do you pay attention to other writers in terms of the content they put out? Do you have an internal ranking of the other writers speaking purely of their content? — @Deesh138

Of course I pay attention. We all do, even if we don’t really talk about it much. Ha. We are in a very competitive industry. If I think I’m getting my butt kicked by another reporter on a regular basis, well, I better up my performance, right? We are all very well aware of one another, but for the most part, we all get along pretty well.

The last couple of years, I haven’t paid as much attention because of COVID-19. You see, we haven’t been allowed in locker rooms, so we’re all basically using the same quotes and content from press conferences. It really takes a lot of fun out of the job and makes a lot of our work reflect each other’s a little too much. That’s why I started doing the 10 observations after every game exclusively during this time. It was something different I could do that wasn’t relying on Jake Guentzel saying something like, “We played a good game tonight.”

What’s your take on the ESPN/TNT coverage this year? I think TNT has been great and ESPN/ABC has been fine. — @KingZLear

I don’t disagree. TNT was superb this season, in my view. I think TNT showcases by far the best broadcasting talent that is available for American NHL fans. Not even close. I also love their intermission show. The studio panel is outstanding. Wayne Gretzky isn’t great on TV by nature, but he got better as the season elapsed. Rick Tocchet is terrific. Biz is Biz, and I find him entertaining.

Anson Carter is pretty good. Having Henrik Lundqvist on was great, and he should become a fixture. He’s good on TV. It’s just a great product that has the potential to improve. I appreciate how much time TNT gave hockey broadcasts this season. It was a great debut season.

ESPN isn’t bad. They’ve got some good pieces in place and just having the game back on ESPN is a huge, huge deal. That said, they need to broadcast more games during the regular season. The intermission reports could use some work, also. Mark Messier is OK. I don’t really like Chris Chelios in that role.

Still, I believe both networks are already superior to NBC’s coverage, though there is no replacing the great Doc Emrick.

What is your ideal room temperature/season of the year? — @GoWumbo

Well, those are two distinctly different questions. My ideal room temperature is 68, especially in the spring, summer and fall months. In the winter, I’ll sometimes bump it up to around 70. I hate being hot. In hotels, I take my preferred Jagr temperature and bump it down to Mario. Hotel rooms are better cold, right?

My favorite time of year is fall by a mile. I find our weather in Pittsburgh to be at its best in late September and October. A sunny day in October in the high 60s is just about perfect as far as I’m concerned.

Take us through a day in your offseason life. — @SaraCivian 

Here’s the thing, Sara. I’m an ordinary man living an extraordinary life, so it changes one day to the next. Last night, I went to the grocery store during a storm, came home, and saw a damn tree was uprooted in my front yard. It’s always something, you know?

That said, I usually wake up around 9 a.m. Check on the kids. Have a protein shake for breakfast. Play with my cats for a bit. Then, I’ll sit on the couch and ponder life. Mark Kaboly usually calls me to complain about something before noon. If it’s not too hot, I’ll play tennis in the evening with Jayme. It’s fun and she likes playing new sports. I’ll depress myself by watching Pirates baseball. I also enjoy long walks and trips to bookstores.

I miss hockey in the offseason, but not too much. It’s not a bad life.

How would you rank your dislike of these three coaches/managers: John Harbaugh, Ken Hitchcock, Joe Maddon? — @yy67045767

Now here’s an interesting question. I don’t dislike Hitchcock that much. I mean, as a reporter, he’s a dream. Very quotable. Always gives you time. Ends up essentially writing a lot of stories for you, indirectly. We love that. I do, however, find him to be a little disingenuous at times and his behavior following a Penguins/Flyers game in 2005 was objectionable. You might recall Sidney Crosby having his face rearranged in that game, and then winning it in overtime anyway. Hitchcock said following the game, “I didn’t notice him all game except for the goal.”

That’s the kind of stuff the NHL struggles with, minimizing stars’ impacts while condoning violence toward them.

Harbaugh drives me insane. The constant whining during games is overwhelming. It just makes me want to punch him. That said, I actually think he’s a really good coach.

Maddon? He’d be my pick. He’s quite impressed with himself, you know? I’m not a fan. (Ask me about Tony La Russa next time. I have a lovely story about dealing with him.)

I need a good wedding song to show off my dance moves in October. Any ideas? — @cgibson412

I’m opening this question up to the readers. I’m attending Chuck’s wedding in October. I once saw him drunkenly do The Worm on a stranger’s car in January in the Mad Mex parking lot in Monroeville. So if any of you have a song in mind that would suit such a man on such an occasion, please send word along.

If you didn’t cover the Pens, which NHL team would you like to have covered for your career? — @AdkDamour

I’d have to say the Canadiens. I have a particular affection for Montreal. It’s just a great, great city. No NHL team is more significant to the game’s history than the Habs. It’s not even close. Plus, I’d be a lot closer to my kids, who live in Kingston, Ontario.

So if The Athletic wants to execute an in-company trade for a year or two, I’d be headed to Quebec without hesitation.

Could you tell us more about the dog in your Twitter profile picture? — @Gaussuace30

Of course! Her name is Pippi. She’s actually my mom’s dog, but I spend lots of time with her. Her positive energy is off the charts. Just the sweetest dog. I’d love to have my own dog, but it’s really hard for me because I’m out of town so often covering the Penguins and visiting my kids in Canada. Wouldn’t really be fair to the dog. Pippi loves to cuddle and always barks when she sees other animals on TV. It’s quite funny.

Advice for someone just getting into sports journalism/hockey journalism? Biggest takeaway from your career? — @DylanRiderTorch

Sure thing. First of all, make sure you’re competent at everything. Writing, TV, radio, photography … it’s all so important. Employers these days want people who can excel in different facets. If you want to be a TV star, great. But you should still be working on your writing skills. And so on.

Be persistent. (I always struggled with this.) Keep bugging bosses and employers, and people like me. Get your name out there. By persistent without being arrogant. That’s the secret.

My biggest takeaway? So many people in my line of work are full of themselves. It’s staggering, really. In the end, I’m just a guy writing about hockey. It’s a great job. I love it. But I’m not in charge of world peace or of curing cancer. Those people are way, way more important than me. Never lose track of that. Readers are smart. If you’re in love with yourself or making yourself part of the story when you shouldn’t, they’ll see right through it and your credibility will be shot.

Don’t be afraid to be entertaining. Offer insight. Offer analysis. Put in the work. But stay humble. That’s the best advice I can give.

Hope everyone is having a great start to the summer. We’ll have heavy coverage of the NHL Draft, the opening of free agency and what will be a fascinating summer for the Penguins.

Stay safe out there and be well. Until we chat again.

(Photo of Evgeni Malkin: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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