I'm going to say it: Evgeni Malkin is not only the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, but in the entire NHL. He's everything anyone could ask for in a hockey player. He's extremely skilled, physical and, even though his English isn't the greatest, very funny in the locker room.
Malkin's contract is set to expire a year later, after the 2014 season. He is currently getting paid $9 million a year, which is even more than Crosby, as it should be. However, given how his play has drastically improved since he first signed the contract, the Penguins may need to give him even more in order to get him to stay.
That could damage the team's future plans salary cap-wise if they plan to bring in players like Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter.
Obviously, the team has an extra year to negotiate with Malkin than it did with Crosby, but it wouldn't hurt to start the negotiations with Geno as soon as possible.
This is the player that the Penguins need to have, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he would be willing to test the market in two summers from now to see what offers he could get from teams who may have more cap space to sign him.
Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils will be the highest paid player in the NHL next year, as he will earn $11.5 million for the next five seasons. I would not be surprised to find a team that would be willing to give Malkin that much per season, especially since he signed a $9 million per year deal before he won a Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and a Hart Trophy.
What should the Penguins' priority be over the course of the next two seasons?
Malkin is the best player in the world, and he seems to be somewhat overshadowed by Sidney Crosby. There will definitely be teams willing to offer him more money than the Penguins will and also put the spotlight on him.
Obviously, media attention isn't exactly the biggest deal to an NHL player, but it wouldn't hurt as a marketing campaign for other teams on July 1st, 2014 if the Penguins fail to extend Malkin.
The smart thing to do in Pittsburgh would be to use all of the money they need to extend Malkin. He's more valuable than Suter, Parise and even Sidney Crosby.