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Penguins finally lock up defenseman Letang to maintain team's Big 3

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 6:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Defenseman Kris Letang and the Penguins finalized a contract extension spanning eight years worth $58 million on Tuesday, July 2, 2013.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang (left) celebrates with Sidney Crosby after scoring an empty-net goal induring the third period against the Rangers on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

Kris Letang has his big contract.

The Penguins have their franchise defenseman.

This is generally how general manager Ray Shero envisioned everything during the hours after the NHL lockout ended in early January, when he talked of building the Penguins' next Stanley Cup champion around captain Sidney Crosby and fellow star center Evgeni Malkin — and Letang.

Shero sees big things for that last guy.

“I remember signing him to his last contract and thinking then his best days are ahead of him — and I can say the same thing now,” Shero said Tuesday.

“Kris Letang is a great defenseman. He deserved to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy. He's getting better. He's a tough guy to replace. I didn't want to have to replace him.”

After two weeks of up-and-down negotiations, the Penguins and Letang finalized an eight-year contract worth $58 million Monday. The NHL approved the contract Tuesday.

The framework of the deal came together at a face-to-face meeting between Shero and agent Kent Hughes on Saturday night.

Letang, 26, will count $7.25 million annually against the salary cap — the third-highest hit for a defenseman.

He will play next season on the final year of his current deal, at a $3.5 million cap hit.

Starting July 1, 2014, he will hold a limited-movement clause that allows him to select from 12 teams to which the Penguins can't trade him. The list can be altered prior to the start of every season during Letang's new contract, which will expire after the 2021-22 campaign.

The contract is structured for flat payments to Letang, unlike the new deal that kicks in next season for Crosby, who will make $12 million in each of the first three seasons, then $10.9 in Years 4-5.

A cap hit similar to Nashville's Shea Weber ($7.86 million) and Minnesota's Ryan Suter ($7.54 million) was important to Letang, who wasn't available for comment.

Also important, Letang stressed last week, was the potential for his new family — he became a father in the fall and recently got engaged — to establish roots in Pittsburgh, a city he has grown to love.

Penguins ownership has proven it loves paying for star power. Since February 2012, majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle have authorized contracts for, in order, winger James Neal, Crosby, Malkin, left winger Chris Kunitz, Letang and right winger Pascal Dupuis that total $294.95 million.

The cap, set at $64.3 million for next season, is projected to increase because of what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Stanley Cup Final will be a return to pre-lockout record revenue ($3.3 billion).

The Penguins are committed to $25.45 million in cap space for Letang, Crosby ($8.7 million) and Malkin ($9.5 million) — the most for any three players on an NHL club. They have nine players under contract for 2014-15 at a combined cap hit of about $48.95 million.

The NHL labor contract does not permit the cap to drop below $64.3 million, so Malkin, Crosby and Letang never will combine to take up more than 39.6 percent of the Penguins' cap.

“At least we know that $64.3 million is always going to be there,” Shero said. “I do know what Kris, Malkin and Sid are at for next year and the year after — and we're going to see how this works after that.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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