CRANBERRY, Pa. — The angst was real. For Evgeni Malkin. And Sidney Crosby. And Kris Letang. And just about everyone else associated with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The trio that's served as the franchise's bedrock for the better part of two decades understood they were heading into a summer of uncertainty, a time when the business of professional hockey might get in the way of their singular bond.
Yet all three kept the faith, confident that sanity and stability would prevail.
The financial reward came over the summer as Letang and Malkin agreed to long-term deals that could keep them in Pittsburgh for the remainder of their careers.
The physical reward came Thursday when all three took the ice as the Penguins opened a training camp that looked an awful lot like the 16 before it: with three generational talents serving as the focal point of a team that insists its Stanley Cup window remains open.
The drama of a potentially turbulent summer — particularly when it came to Malkin's status — has faded. Almost everyone from a group that feels it was a lucky bounce or two away from a deep playoff run is back, most notably the 36-year-old Malkin, who signed a four-year deal just hours before he was set to enter free agency for the first time.
Asked if he feared a potential breakup, the Russian star shook his head.
“No, I believe I stay here forever,” he said from his familiar stall inside the team's training facility, the stall that remains just a handful of spaces down from Crosby's and maybe 25 feet away from Letang's.
Maybe, but Letang wasn't quite so sure. While he, Malkin and Crosby have somehow managed to stay together, Letang understands they are the exception in a league set up for almost constant churn everywhere from the front office to the coaching staff to the roster itself.
“You can look at other franchises in the league, like sometimes they have great players, but sometimes they decide to take a different turn or they have a different vision of the team,” he said.
Not in Pittsburgh, where new owner Fenway Sports Group has no plans to mess with a formula that's allowed the Penguins to reach the playoffs in each of the past 16 seasons, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
Rather than blow it up after a fifth straight first-round exit, the franchise essentially doubled down, with forwards Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell also opting to stay rather than test the open market.
The Penguins even inked head coach Mike Sullivan to a three-year extension even though Sullivan had two years remaining on his old deal.
“I think we’ve got a great group,” said Sullivan, the NHL's second-longest tenured coach behind Tampa bay's Jon Cooper. “I think we have, you know, we have in my mind the best corps that that I’ve ever been around. These guys are driven to win. They’re hungry.”
Particularly Malkin, who missed the first half of last season while recovering from knee surgery and consistently flip-flopped between brilliant and blah. He recorded 20 goals and remained a force on the power play but looked every bit his age at times while playing five-on-five.
“I’m still like a good player,” Malkin said. “I believe (in) myself. I believe (in) my teammates. ... I’m here to win.”
The issue in Pittsburgh hasn't been winning. Crosby, Malkin and Letang have their names on the Stanley Cup three times. Yet the Penguins haven't advanced past the first round since 2018, the latest setback a Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers last May in which Pittsburgh was forced to start third-string goalie Louis Domingue for most of the series due to injuries to All-Star Tristan Jarry and top backup Casey DeSmith.
Four months later, the disappointment lingers.
“It hurt because (you had that) little feeling that you have in your gut when you know you have a good team,” Letang said. “That made it sting even more.”
That pain lingered in the aftermath as the Penguins cleaned out their lockers wary of what might come next. The offseason message from the front office, however, was very clear — the club understands what it has is unique and not easily replicable, especially when it comes to Malkin who, for all of his physical struggles of late, remains a force of nature when he's right.
“Anything you would have tried to do to replace him, you would lose that trade-off,” Letang said. “Like you say, he’s a magician out there. He does things that nobody can and you want him on your team.”
Yet Malkin's meaning to the organization goes beyond the tangible. It's the same for Letang and Crosby, who made no secret of his desire that the club do whatever it takes to make sure he and his two close friends have a chance to finish what they started.
Some creative math by general manager Ron Hextall helped pull off a reunion that seemed somewhat improbable over the summer. Now the group that Sullivan said is “older but not old” is eyeing the third period of their careers with a renewed sense of purpose.
“The fact that we were able to keep those guys intact, I’m excited about it and I know they are as well," Sullivan said. "I know they’re motivated to try to win again.”