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Rossi: Penguins can look more like Blackhawks soon

| Sunday, March 2, 2014, 6:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews celebrates his second-period goal against the Penguins on Saturday, March 1, 2014, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Arguably the NHL's three best centers shared the outdoor ice Saturday at frozen Soldier Field.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is widely regarded as the finest player in the sport. His all-time points-per-game average (1.41) ranks fifth. His teammate, Evgeni Malkin, is one of three current players to win multiple scoring titles. Of that group, Malkin is the only one to have won a playoff MVP and led a postseason in point production.

Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks captain, is known less for individual achievement than he is for simply winning. He has as many Stanley Cup rings (two) as he does Olympic gold medals.

These players, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said, were building blocks that likely would have transformed any franchise. As things stood Sunday, the defending champion Blackhawks and conference-leading Penguins were among the Cup favorites, according to Las Vegas bookmakers.

“If your strength is down the middle and you have that top center, you're in a good situation,” Scuderi said.

He is a qualified expert.

Scuderi has played on two of the past five teams to win the Stanley Cup and also lost in a Final and a conference final.

The Penguins and Blackhawks have won three of the past five titles. The great difference between them is the cap hits of their franchise players.

Crosby and Malkin were dominant scorers who won individual NHL hardware early and thus were paid like elite players on their second contracts. Neither Toews nor Patrick Kane took the NHL by storm early, and their second contracts reflected their status as stars — but not superstars, like Crosby and Malkin.

The numbers tell this story.

Crosby and Malkin have combined to count $17.4 million against the salary cap every season dating to the 2009-10 campaign. That season, they combined to take up 30.6 percent of the Penguins' allotted cap space. The percentage had decreased every season until this one, when the cap's first drop pushed Crosby and Malkin's combined hit to 27 percent of $64.3 million.

Toews and Kane began their second contracts for the 2010-11 season. Then, their combined cap hit of $12.6 million accounted for 21.2 percent of the NHL's $59.4 million cap. This season, Toews and Kane take up only 19.6 percent of the Blackhawks' cap.

The Blackhawks beat the Penguins, 5-1, on Saturday. That followed last season, when they beat the Penguins to the second title of the salary-cap era.

Universally praised within the hockey community for their depth at forward, the Blackhawks have had one clear advantage over the Penguins: The Toews/Kane duo has cost less than the Crosby/Malkin combination, so the Blackhawks have been able to build a deeper squad.

Not for long, though.

Last summer, Malkin agreed to only a modest raise, upping his individual cap hit to $9.6 million — less than $1 million from his previous $8.7 million total. Crosby stayed at $8.7 million on his third contract the year before, though his actual salary is $12 million.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told league governors the cap will increase to at least $71 million next season. Crosby and Malkin's combined hit will be $18.3 million, or 25.8 percent of the Penguins' allotment.

The cap, instituted in 2005, never has dropped after a full NHL season. If that continues, as Bettman said he expects, the Penguins will have eight seasons of Crosby and Malkin taking up no more than a fraction above a quarter of their cap space.

Toews and Kane reportedly are seeking to make $12 million each on their next deals, which will begin for the 2015-16 season. If that happens, even with an $80 million cap, the Blackhawks' two best players would be taking up almost 8 percent more cap space annually than those for the Penguins.

Malkin said he and Crosby have talked about wanting to win together again, and that played a factor in their respective decisions not to push for maximum money on those third contracts. Players can earn up to 20 percent of the cap from the year they sign their contracts; Malkin and Crosby each left more than $3 million in average annual value on the table.

“Teams need good players to win the Cup,” Malkin said. “Not just two good players, but many. I want to win. So does Sid.

“We have good players in Pittsburgh. Hopefully, we (can) get more.”

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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