Evgeni Malkin has opted to test the free agency waters once the NHL’s signing period opens on Wednesday.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t return to the Penguins.
At least that’s how the team’s president of hockey operations, Brian Burke, feels.
On Tuesday morning, Burke spoke to the Tribune-Review by phone and discussed Malkin’s future, the state of contract discussions between the two parties and a few other items on the eve of free agency.
• Burke confirmed various reports from Monday that stated Malkin has opted to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his nonpareil 16-year career. But that doesn’t mean Malkin won’t re-sign with the team.
“The window is still open. But the timing is problematic,” Burke said. “Once free agency opens, we have to commit to what we need to do to improve our hockey club. So the timing may not work. But certainly, there’s no reaction on our part that, ‘Oh, we don’t want Evgeni back.’ Or, ‘This is horrible. What’s he thinking?’ None of that. It’s more, that store window is going to open (on Wednesday) and we’ve got to go to the store.”
• Burke declined to get into the details of contract negotiations between the team and Malkin’s representation, but he made one point clear about the terms of a potential contract.
“We were unable to reach a deal,” he said. “We made an offer that we were comfortable with. There are stories out there that we never offered a four-year deal. That’s completely false. But as far as the mechanics and the amounts, we never talk about that stuff.”
• After Malkin made his decision, the team did re-sign pending unrestricted free agent forward Rickard Rakell to a six-year contract that carries a salary cap hit of $5 million. The 29-year-old impressed management after he joined the team at the trade deadline in March.
“We were big fans of Rickard Rakell for a long time,” Burke said. “We were able to get him, he got hurt very quickly (in March). Then he came back and played some good hockey for us. We think he’s a very skilled guy with above-average size. Makes our forward group better. Quality person. We’re pretty excited.”
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• According to Cap Friendly, the Penguins have $10,308,158 of salary cap space to operate following Rakell’s signing. Burke was asked if the team would like to clear more space, perhaps via trade, or if that is a sufficient figure to pursue potential free agents.
“That remains to be seen, if we do something and create more space,” Burke said. “But we certainly feel we have enough to continue shopping.”
• On Friday, at the NHL Draft in Montreal’s Bell Center, general manager Ron Hextall cited forwards as the team’s biggest area of need this offseason. Burke did not get into specifics, but confirmed that the team is still focusing on the forward ranks, even after re-signing Rakell.
• One forward the team will allow to enter unrestricted free agency is Danton Heinen. On Monday, the team opted not to extend a qualifying offer to Heinen, who entered the offseason as a restricted free agent. By all measures, Heinen offered satisfactory play in 2021-22 as he posted 33 points (18 goals, 15 assists) in 76 games.
But the business of restricted free agency led the Penguins to not qualify him.
“Most of these guys, when you have a case where a player has had a productive year and he’s not qualified, often, it’s because teams are nervous about their (potential) arbitration case,” Burke said. “And that’s the case here. We were very happy with Danton. He’s a great kid. He had a good year for us. But by performing as well as he did, it puts us in an arbitration position that’s untenable.”
Heinen would have been eligible for salary arbitration in August.
• Forward Kasperi Kapanen did receive a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent despite a largely disappointing two seasons with the team. Last season, Kapanen, a first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in 2014, played in 79 games and scored 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists).
Burke did not sugarcoat the team’s assessment of what Kapanen has offered to this point in his Penguins tenure. At the same time, he professed optimism about what the skilled forward can still offer.
“I wouldn’t say maybe his play hasn’t been up to his standard. I think it’s clear that it hasn’t. His play has been well below what we’ve expected and hoped for,” Burke said. “That being said, he’s a really good person. We think he can bounce back. And he’s going to bounce back.”
• Throughout his career in management, Burke has never been shy about having a preference for big, physical defensemen who can offer a variety of skills. He has drafted for the likes of Chris Pronger and Dion Phaneuf throughout his various stops around the NHL.
Suffice it to say, he was satisfied when the Penguins selected defenseman Owen Pickering (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) in the first round (No. 21 overall) of last week’s draft.
“From just being around him a little bit, the last few days, his skating lives up to his billing,” Burke said. ‘He’s an excellent skater for a big man. He’s a quality kid. He’s very popular already. Very bright. And you can’t teach 6-foot-4.25 inches.”
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Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .