Early last summer, at his spacious home in Montreal, Kris Letang finally saw the document that secured his future in Pittsburgh.
No stranger to the multi-page, standard player contract, this one was particularly special. It was his fourth, and probably his last. It contained specific elements Letang and his agent required. One line read “six years.” Another read “$36.6 million.” The line that Letang really loved?: “full no-movement clause.”
Together, those words recommitted Letang and the Penguins, the only NHL franchise he had ever known. With his wife, Catherine, nearby and his two young children, Victoria and Alexander, elsewhere inside their house, Letang signed his name. At 35, he would finish his career in Pittsburgh.
As word spread last July 7, Letang’s phone blew up. The flood of well-wishers included teammates past and present, various Penguins personnel he’d befriended over his previous 16 seasons, and family and friends. He took only a few calls. Among them: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, his oldest and dearest teammates in Pittsburgh, who were thrilled for him.
Crosby, the Penguins captain and franchise icon, had made it clear to general manager Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke as far back as the 2021 offseason that he wanted the team to re-sign impending free agents Letang and Malkin so the three veterans and lifetime Penguins could take another shot at a Stanley Cup together. Fenway Sports Group, the Penguins’ new owners who took control of the team in January 2022, had also instructed Hextall and Burke to prioritize re-signing Letang and Malkin. If Crosby and ownership were on board, all of this would be easy, right?
While the negotiations with Letang took longer and were more difficult than expected, Hextall’s discussions with Malkin had turned dark. Only days before the start of free agency last summer, Letang, Crosby and coach Mike Sullivan worked overtime trying to calm Malkin, who was stewing over lowball early contract offers, limited communication with Hextall and veiled public shots from Burke.
“How bad is it?” Letang asked Crosby about the state of Malkin’s emotions and the negotiations.
“Pretty bad,” Crosby said.
At the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in the northern Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry, there is a top-floor GM’s office with a balcony wide enough to hold two dozen people. Hextall inherited that office on Feb. 7, 2021, when he was named the team’s GM. For the next two years, he and Burke watched Penguins practices from that balcony, usually by themselves.
In that office, with the blinds frequently drawn, some of the Penguins’ most baffling, infuriating and disastrous decisions of the past two years were made. The ice beneath a rock-solid franchise was cracking. Those decisions had inflamed some of the most important players on the team, caused a rift with their respected coach, angered the fan base and team ownership, and ultimately led to the Penguins missing the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. The chaos of a franchise in disarray ended April 14 when both Hextall and Burke were fired.
Long before his foray into NHL front offices, the 59-year-old Hextall, a former All-Star goaltender, had a feisty reputation. He gained infamy for tirades and fights as much as garnering accolades such as the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goalie and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoffs MVP, both in his 1986-87 rookie season. He once created controversy in 1989 by declaring his player contract invalid — offering no reason why — and hiring a new agent to play hardball during a holdout with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Hextall first irritated Malkin late in the 2021-22 season by offering a short-term contract extension to his agent, J.P. Barry. In the offseason that animosity built as weeks passed without a follow-up conversation from Hextall. On June 17, Hextall told Barry that the team’s offer was “take-it-or-leave-it,” and the next day Burke used those words to characterize the negotiations during multiple media interviews. Not surprisingly, Malkin, a sure Hall-of-Famer, went from annoyed to insulted.
For weeks leading up to and after Letang’s deal was finalized, Malkin stewed at home while Crosby, Letang and Sullivan checked in with him from afar. With no deal in sight, Malkin began speaking to his small inner circle as if his time with the Penguins was concluding.
Hextall fielded daily questions from Fenway Sports Group brass about why Malkin hadn’t yet been re-signed. Hextall was also taken aback by the barrage of calls and texts — from Penguins alternate governor Dave Beeston, from Crosby and Sullivan, from president of business operations Kevin Acklin — after reports surfaced that Malkin would test free agency. He told his agent he wanted to “show Hextall and Burke” by trying the open market.
Malkin had joked during the ’21-22 season that he was “a rich guy,” insisting he didn’t need to worry about money on his next contract. He was having a laugh, but was also somewhat serious. He had taken less than market value on two previous deals with the Penguins and expected that trend to continue on his final NHL contract.
He was about to turn 36. He wanted to play until he was 40. He sought a contract with a no-trade clause. But more than money, he needed the Penguins to show they really wanted him, something he felt was lacking, especially from Hextall. By July 11, 2022, Malkin was convinced he’d already practiced in Cranberry for the last time.
After tucking in their son, Nikita, Malkin and his wife, Anna, sat on their leather couch and looked at a summary sheet of Hextall’s latest offer: four seasons, $24.4 million total, a full no-movement clause.
Malkin was fine with what he read. The sticking point was his bruised feelings.
“They not think I good player,” Malkin wrote in a text message to Crosby.
“They not want me,” Malkin texted to Letang, who had stepped up efforts to console Malkin after signing his deal.
Malkin wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, but he no longer trusted either Hextall or Burke. Crosby and Sullivan intervened. Each spent hours on the phone with Malkin as July 11 became July 12. Careful not to tell him what to do, Crosby and Sullivan implored Malkin to “not worry about those guys” — Hextall and Burke — when making a final decision. Letang, too, jumped into the mix. Together, two-thirds of the Big Three and their coach brought up every special moment, funny story and great time they could remember to remind Malkin what they had built in Pittsburgh. Malkin paced from room to room at his condo in Fisher Island, finally beginning to feel wanted again.
As early morning shifted to late afternoon, Malkin had heard enough to make a decision. He called his agent, Barry, with instructions to re-engage with Hextall and take the offer. Upon calling, Barry was surprised to find a receptive Hextall.
The deal was done.
After hanging up with Barry, Hextall bragged to his assistant GM, Chris Pryor, and a handful of staffers, that he “got him on my terms — that’s how you negotiate.” Malkin informed Crosby, Letang and Sullivan that he was staying. When talking to Crosby and Letang, Malkin sounded happy for the first time in a long time.
“We win next year,” Malkin told his friends. “Big year get back Cup.”
Everyone was looking forward to a new season, a fresh start to what seemed to be the Big Three’s final chapter.
Left to right, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at Crosby’s 500th-goal celebration on Feb. 20, 2022. (Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)
The Penguins were one of six expansion NHL franchises in 1967-68, but they didn’t come of age — and in fact, had once gone bankrupt in the 1970s — until they drafted Mario Lemieux with the top pick in 1984. He wasted no time leaving an indelible mark on Pittsburgh, crafting one of the NHL’s greatest careers and sport’s most inspiring stories, turning the Penguins into back-to-back Stanley Cup champions (1991 and ’92) while overcoming injuries and illness, before retiring prematurely.
The franchise went bankrupt again in the late 1990s. Lemieux, the Penguins’ largest creditor, formed a group to make a bid for the team, and a local bankruptcy judge awarded that group control of the club for somewhere around $100 million. At the time, Lemieux told close friends he planned to own the Penguins no more than 10 years.
A decade became almost a quarter-century. By the time Lemieux and his partner, billionaire Ron Burkle, sold the franchise to John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group (FSG) midway through the 2021-22 season for around $900 million, the Penguins had established themselves as a flagship franchise of the NHL’s salary-cap era. Since 2005, they won the Stanley Cup three times, made 16 playoff appearances, racked up the second most regular-season points and had a home sellout streak that ran 14 years. Crosby, Malkin and Letang were the foundation for that success.
FSG assumed full control in January 2022, but it knew next to nothing about the NHL or the Pittsburgh market. During their first few months as Penguins owners, FSG officials, when visiting from their home base of Boston, leaned on the executives they inherited — Hextall and Burke atop hockey operations and David Morehouse as CEO and president — to learn whatever they could as quickly as possible.
There was a backstory to that management team.
Less than two weeks after Jim Rutherford shockingly resigned as GM on Jan. 27, 2021, Morehouse spearheaded a quick search that ended with the hiring of Hextall and Burke. Interviews were done via video call because of COVID-19 restrictions, complicating an already challenging process to replace Rutherford in the middle of a season.
Neither Hextall nor Burke was a popular pick with Penguins fans. Hextall had been a stellar goalie and less-than-stellar GM for the Penguins’ greatest rival, the Flyers. Burke, a former GM with several teams in between stints as a television analyst, had been critical of the Penguins as recently as three months before he was hired. To help sell a skeptical public on the new hockey leadership, Morehouse cooked up a story that Lemieux was heavily involved in the process.
Morehouse had scrambled to find GM candidates and was surprised to discover most of his top choices weren’t too interested in running the Penguins for one big reason: Morehouse sought a willingness from the next heads of hockey in Pittsburgh to break up the Big Three.
Hextall was up for the job, and Burke came on board to sweet-talk sponsors and season-ticket holders to distract from management’s agreed-upon plan for a future without Malkin and Letang.
Three months after finalizing the purchase of the Penguins in January 2022, FSG executives held organizational meetings inside the Water Street Marriott, a waterfront hotel within walking distance of the Florida Aquarium and Tampa Riverwalk.
The executives asked to see Morehouse’s and Hextall’s plans for the business and hockey departments, respectively. Morehouse detailed team finances and waning ticket revenue in a PowerPoint presentation, but Hextall was caught off-guard by the request and said the hockey plan was in his head. Ordered to put it on paper, he scrambled that afternoon, hand writing his ideas on a legal pad, transferring them to a Word document and printing out a couple of pages in the hotel’s business office.
Though unimpressed with Hextall’s lack of preparation, FSG officials didn’t feel comfortable enough about their hockey acumen to question his details — except one. Hextall’s plan included a 2022-23 season with Crosby but without Malkin and Letang.
When interviewing for their jobs early in February 2021, Hextall and Burke had expressed their willingness to break up the Big Three. Hextall wasted little time enthusiastically embracing the idea. He did not try to negotiate extensions with either Malkin or Letang during the 2021 offseason. Also, in January 2022, he re-signed Jeff Carter — a forward older than Malkin — to a two-year extension, with the premise being that Carter could assume Malkin’s role as No. 2 center for the 2022-23 season. By the time of the organizational meetings in Tampa in April 2022, FSG had determined its first big act as new owners shouldn’t be parting with two players who were cherished by Crosby, worshiped by fans and revered by sponsors.
FSG envisioned a simple solution for its franchise’s hockey side — keep the Big Three. The new ownership recognized its focus was more needed on the business side, where it felt tickets were undervalued and revenue streams worrisome.
Morehouse had anticipated FSG would bring in its own CEO at some point but expected to stay on in his role through at least the 2022 offseason. The new owners opted against Morehouse’s timeline, as they wanted to go into the summer with some new hires and different business strategies in place. Morehouse would have essentially been a CEO without any real power, and FSG allowed him to resign on April 27.
A few weeks later, with Henry and FSG chairman Tom Werner in attendance, the Penguins blew out the New York Rangers at home in Games 3 and 4 of an opening-round playoff series. But the good vibes didn’t last long. Crosby was injured in Game 5, couldn’t play in Game 6, and the Penguins found themselves in a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. They lost in overtime — perhaps the most disheartening of four consecutive opening-round exits. A couple of days later, after players packed up their lockers from inside the practice facility dressing room, Crosby fielded a question about the Big Three’s future.
Would he pressure ownership to sign Malkin and Letang?
“I’ve never wanted to be GM,” Crosby said. “I think they know how I feel.”
Ownership didn’t need to read between the lines. They issued Hextall a directive that differed from what he saw as his original plan: re-sign Malkin and Letang.
As a pivotal offseason began, Hextall was busy complaining to his small-but-trusted inner circle on staff, along with friends from his playing days still employed within the NHL. Though he was never dead set against bringing back Malkin and Letang, he lamented to his assistant GM, Pryor, that it wasn’t what he was hired to do. He vented about being unable to oversee a rebuild, instead having to manage a retooling, and said FSG didn’t know hockey like he and Pryor did.
And growing in volume among Hextall’s complaints: Sullivan, who won the Cup twice in Pittsburgh, was too tight with FSG and had too much influence over Hextall’s decisions. These were gripes he shared with Burke, Pryor and executives from a few other teams who were sympathetic to his situation.
The Penguins appeared to have weathered three stormy months to begin the 2022-23 regular season.
A four-game losing streak extended into the first week of November. By then, an exasperated Sullivan resorted to making one regular — Kasperi Kapanen, whom Hextall controversially re-signed during the offseason — a repeated healthy scratch. Days later, Sullivan asked Hextall for the first, but not final, time to trade for a defensive upgrade, specifically Jakob Chychrun, who was being shopped by the Arizona Coyotes. Late in November, Letang was diagnosed with a stroke (he suffered one seven years earlier, in February 2014) and missed a couple of weeks. By the midpoint of December, hockey operations staff began to take sides between management and coaches.
“Hexy and Sully don’t talk,” said a team employee who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak about team officials. “It depends on what side you’re on whose fault that is. Sully has more people on his side.”
Those three months felt like they lasted an entire season.
On New Year’s Eve in Boston, unseasonably mild weather greeted the Penguins, who, despite their trials, showed up in FSG’s stomping grounds with a top-10 record, healthy and ready for a showdown with the league-leading Bruins at Fenway Park for the NHL’s showcase outdoor game. Sullivan, who to Hextall’s surprise had worked out a contract extension directly with FSG in late August, was in his element in Boston. He shared boyhood stories of attending Red Sox and Bruins games and showed off an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s college hockey. He allowed people to hear the native accent his mother had taught him to control. He yukked it up with area dignitaries and league personnel. He might as well have been the Winter Classic’s unofficial mayor during the Penguins’ three days in Boston. The Winter Classic was more than a homecoming for him. It was an appreciation of his life’s work.
But those good feelings didn’t last long. Letang, who had returned less than two weeks after suffering a stroke, received a life-altering phone call late on Dec. 31: His father had died.
In the manager’s office in Fenway Park’s visiting clubhouse on New Year’s Day, Sullivan consoled Letang and told him to take as much time away as he needed. The outdoor game the next day no longer felt like the statement game and major on-ice opportunity it had been for the Penguins, or the celebratory homecoming it had been for Sullivan.
Mike Sullivan walks toward the benches ahead of the Winter Classic on Jan. 2, 2023. (Joe Sargent / NHLI via Getty Images)
Playing with heavy hearts and trying to win for the grieving Letang, teammates watched in disbelief as starting goalie Tristan Jarry, a rock of dependability during the troubled first half of their season, skated awkwardly to the bench, seemingly favoring his entire lower body.
The Penguins blew a lead against the Bruins and lost. They would go on to blow many more leads, with and without Jarry, over the next two months. As injuries to other regulars piled up, so too did defeats, and the Penguins fell downward in the Eastern Conference standings. With injuries causing a revolving-door lineup, the team’s roster deficiencies became more and more visible.
So, too, did friction between Sullivan and Hextall. Fissures grew over each man’s vision for what the Penguins needed — Sullivan wanted trades. Hextall wanted to let things play out.
With that as the backdrop, and the Penguins mired in an 8-10-3 slide that had them unexpectedly fighting to extend the NHL’s longest active playoff streak, a hockey night in Pittsburgh like no other played out with FSG’s top brass in town to watch.
It was always a Pittsburgh thing: Watching the best player in the world destroy his opponent. For more than a decade, that story was about Crosby’s Penguins. But on Feb. 23, Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers flipped the script. Penguins fans, disheartened by the 7-2 blowout loss, cheered when McDavid scored on a late penalty shot. Jarringly, even more chanted “Fire Hextall.” No Penguins crowd had ever turned on a member of the front office before.
If it appeared Hextall’s days were numbered, what came next provided more clarity.
Hextall put Kapanen on waivers the day after fans chanted for his firing. Somewhat shockingly, the St. Louis Blues claimed him. Hextall told other members of the front office that Kapanen would become a better player elsewhere and that Sullivan was holding him back.
Hextall later enraged players and coaches by putting Brock McGinn on waivers while McGinn was enjoying some family time on the team’s annual “dad’s trip” in Nashville. Sullivan was forced to deliver the news.
After McGinn was put on waivers, he played a memorable final game with the Penguins, blocking shots and setting up Crosby for a dramatic tying goal in the third period. In the locker room afterward, his soon-to-be-former teammates named him player of the game, eliciting a massive roar from the group that could be heard through closed doors.
Hextall traded Teddy Blueger during the same trip. In the middle of a dinner with the players’ fathers, arranged by Crosby at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Blueger learned via social media that he had been dealt to Vegas. He and his dad abruptly left the restaurant. Crosby rushed to console his now former teammate and after a few minutes returned to the dinner. “That’s not how we do things in Pittsburgh,” he said. Crosby remained mostly quiet the rest of the night.
In the week leading up to the March 3 trade deadline, Sullivan and his staff lamented that Jan Rutta, a veteran defenseman Hextall had signed in free agency, was unavailable to play despite being medically cleared after an injury. Rutta was healthy, but the Penguins lacked salary-cap space to add him to the roster.
Sullivan had come into the season questioning a few of Hextall’s offseason decisions — specifically bringing back Kapanen — because they had left the Penguins with little roster flexibility. Limited by the lack of cap space all season, Sullivan saw the Rutta situation as the clearest example of Hextall’s mismanagement.
Hextall flirted with the idea of adding Vancouver forward J.T. Miller, a Pittsburgh-area native who recorded 99 points the previous season, in a three-team trade, but the Penguins would have lost Jason Zucker in the deal — a non-starter for an infuriated Sullivan and a move that would’ve clashed with FSG’s judgment that it couldn’t justify Miller’s massive contract extension from a business perspective.
So Hextall settled on Mikael Granlund, at the request of Pryor, his assistant GM. Granlund, 31, didn’t make the Penguins, who already had the NHL’s oldest roster, any younger. His scoring, skating and usage had declined and he had two years remaining on a contract that counted $5 million against the cap. He filled neither a short- nor long-term need. The move was so stunning, and received such poor reception from local and national media, that Hextall and Burke went out of their way to defend it. They insisted in interviews after the trade deadline that other teams badly wanted to acquire Granlund.
Hextall’s chaotic flurry of moves the week leading up to the deadline did not produce the desired result. The Penguins finished the season in a 9-11-1 funk. Crosby, so brilliant all season, went into a slump. They endured embarrassing losses at home against the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators and on the road against the Detroit Red Wings. On national TV, they flopped at Madison Square Garden in a 6-0 loss to the Rangers.
Their playoff streak appeared doomed.
Despite their struggles on the ice and division off it, the Penguins were sparked by unexpected good fortune to begin the final week of the regular season. Circumstances had conspired to give them back control of their postseason fate: Beat the lowly Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets to keep the streak alive.
A sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena on April 11 created a playoff-like atmosphere against the Blackhawks. However, through two periods, the Penguins trailed 1-0. In the third, Malkin scored a dramatic, tying power-play goal that, for just a moment, felt like old times. About five minutes later, Jarry allowed two goals in 26 seconds and, just like that, their playoff push was almost over.
Long after most of their teammates had left the locker room after the demoralizing 5-2 defeat, the Big Three remained.
Malkin was emotional, his voice rising as he spoke. He had been dreaming of his beloved parents, Natalia and Vladimir, returning to Pittsburgh for another postseason run. Instead, they’d stay in Russia.
Letang, in the adjacent corner of the room, spoke thoughtfully and contemplatively. He had been through hell and back all season, and the Penguins’ loss was another blow.
Then there was Crosby, who sits at the center of an arc of connected lockers. The Penguins captain, with gray hairs that seemed to grow more plentiful throughout the season, sat stoically. After finishing interviews, Crosby sat by himself, staring straight ahead before slowly walking out of the locker room.
The next day, their season on the brink, Penguins coaches and players dutifully practiced in Cranberry. Hextall and Burke, anticipating the inevitable, packed their personal items in boxes and said their goodbyes to administrative personnel at PPG Paints Arena. The divided sides reconvened that afternoon for the short charter flight to Columbus, Ohio. They were joined by Dave Beeston, the team’s alternate governor and FSG’s ownership surrogate, and Kevin Acklin, its president of business operations.
While the Penguins were eating dinner in Columbus that night, the Islanders were putting an end to the NHL’s longest playoff streak with their 4-2 victory over the Canadiens. Crosby, Malkin and Letang had never before played in a game without postseason ramifications. They would the next night.
It was somewhat fitting that it was the Islanders who were delivering the final blow. They’d been doing it for decades. Their overtime wins in deciding games of the 1975, 1982 and 1993 postseasons are arguably the three most gutting losses in Penguins history. New York’s series triumphs in 2019 and 2021 reinforced that no matter the Penguins captain — be it Ron Schock, Randy Carlyle, Lemieux or Crosby over the years — the Islanders could spoil their party.
The next night, April 13, as Hextall and Burke watched from a box inside Nationwide Arena, the Penguins, with only their pride at stake, again blew a lead and lost in overtime to the Blue Jackets. Beeston and Acklin were there, watching an uncomfortable final episode of a drama that had run its course.
Nothing was official. But everybody knew.
One of the longest days in Penguins history had already ended when the team plane landed at a private Pittsburgh-area airfield in the darkened early-morning hours of April 14. Silence filled the air after sounds of the plane’s last throttle. Hextall, carrying a computer bag emblazoned with a Penguins logo, and Burke, draped in his familiar charcoal raincoat, stepped off the flight having finally heard what was no secret.
Two years with the Penguins is all they would get. Eleven hours later, the Penguins issued a statement announcing the team had fired Hextall, Burke and Pryor. Later that afternoon, inside a cramped room where Sullivan regularly spoke to the media after practices, Acklin and Beeston — the latter nervously taking questions from Pittsburgh reporters for the first time — tried to begin moving forward. Beeston made clear that FSG still expected the Penguins to contend for championships. After all, they still had Crosby, Malkin and Letang.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic.Photos: Jeanine Leech, Gregory Shamus, Jeff Vinnick, Justin K. Aller / Getty Images)