It is not important what anybody other than Ray Shero and Kris Letang think about what has gone down these past several days.
However, it is important for everybody following at home to know the basics.
- The Penguins are willing to pay Letang around $7 million annually over eight years for him to keep playing hockey in Pittsburgh.
- Letang wants to do that, but at a different price. He sees himself as an elite defenseman, and he wants paid accordingly – as in, no less than $7.5 million annually. Closer to $8 million, which is what he projects to command on the open market next summer.
Those are the basics.
As long as negotiations are about basics – money, term, clauses – talks remain cordial. Usually.
There are other factors here that seemingly are wrecking the process between the Penguins and Letang:
- He is not happy with what he has read in my reporting for the Trib – essentially, that some members of the coaching staff/management viewed Paul Martin as the Penguins’ best defenseman last season. Letang is one of the best defensemen in hockey, but he also takes slights very personally. Anybody who has coached him, covered him or played with him will attest to this. He is coming off a Norris Trophy nomination, his first, and was the only defenseman to average a point-per-game. He views himself as a franchise player. He knows nobody with the Penguins has used that terminology when discussing him – publicly or privately. He is upset.
- Shero values players that he believes want to be in Pittsburgh, and that has meant taking less than market value on multi-year deals. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz have done that twice – each, for the second time, within the last 12 months – and Shero’s negotiations with those players went smoothly and quickly.
Shero has been burned once – Marian Hossa in 2008 – by negotiations that went long. He vowed after that never to again be the guy standing with the empty bag. It is why he moved quickly to trade Jordan Staal last summer after talks on a new contract quickly reached a dead end. It is why he re-signed Arron Asham instead of Mike Rupp two years ago.
Shero has seen other general managers recently negotiate at the mercy of star players. He will not be that general manager – and, most important, majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle are adamant that he not be that general manager.
As of just after midnight Friday, the Penguins had not made a decision regarding Letang. There is a reason for that.
The difference between this situation and the one with Staal last summer is that Staal stated his desire to play out the last year of his contract and leave via free agency. He wanted a bigger role, and to play with his brother, Eric, in Carolina.
Letang has the role he wants with the Penguins. He plays more minutes than any player and he is the power-play quarterback.
He wants the money that will make him feel like the Penguins think he belongs with the best among his position.
This is really about what the money represents. This is about perception.
Therein is the biggest problem with this negotiation.
The Penguins’ two franchise building blocks – the only two players that will not be traded – are Crosby and Malkin, and each has forsaken being the best-paid NHL player to stay in Pittsburgh.
That is the standard.
The perception that players take less to play for the Penguins is the reality.
The Penguins will pay their best players handsomely, but even Crosby and Malkin make sacrifices for the franchise’s overall health.
Letang seems to want to stay with the Penguins, but at his cost.
He owes the Penguins nothing except the next year on this current contract.
He genuinely likes playing hockey in Pittsburgh.
But, really, what is that worth?
Soon enough everybody will know the answer.