By CHRIS ADAMSKI
The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up another elite young player long term, announcing Tuesday they had agreed to terms with defenseman Kris Letang.
A finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, Letang received an eight-year, $58 million contract extension. He would have entered the final season of an existing contract that carried an annual salary-cap hit of $3.5 million. That will now jump to $7.25 beginning in 2014-15, before which Letang was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent.
Letang, 26, tied for the scoring lead among NHL defensemen last season with 38 points in 35 games. He has 44 goals and 165 assists in 385 career games over six-plus seasons.
Letang joins star centers Sidney Crosby (12 years, $104.4 million) and Evgeni Malkin (eight years, $76 million) as players the Penguins have given long-term contracts to in the past 13 months.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, Letang cannot sign till Friday. The pact – the longest allowable by terms of the new collective bargaining agreement – will run through the 2021-22 season, when the 6-foot, 201-pound native of Montreal will be 35.
Beginning in 2014-15, the Penguins are committing $25.45 of salary-cap space to just three players for every season until 2021-22. For the 2014-15 season alone – counting contracts given wingers James Neal and Chris Kunitz, defenseman Paul Martin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury – the organization already has $44.3 million of cap space accounted for just seven players.
The salary cap for the 2013-14 season is projected at $63.4 million, although it is expected to increase dramatically the following year.
The swift and skilled Letang is one of the NHL’s top offensive defensemen. But at times, the former second-round pick has been criticized for play in the defensive end – most recently during a stunning sweep of the Penguins by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals. Letang had no points in the series and was a minus-5 over the first two games alone.
During Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2009, Letang had 13 points, tying for the postseason lead among defensemen with four goals.
Over the past three seasons, Letang leads all NHL defensemen in assists (107). His 0.77 points-per-game average over that span ranks second to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson for players at that position.
Since the end of the regular season, general manager Ray Shero has said extending Letang was a priority.
Though he and agent Kent Hughes talked for a while, Shero could have traded Letang during the NHL Draft Sunday. A similar scenario played out last summer, when center Jordan Staal rejected a 10-year contract offer and Shero dealt him to the Carolina Hurricanes in a trade announced from the podium.
It never reached that point with Letang.