It started with comments Ray Shero made during his year-end press conference last spring. Carolina GM Jim Rutherford noticed that Shero mentioned he might not be able to keep all three of his centers -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal -- long term.
After hearing that, Rutherford called Shero to plant the seed.
"I called him and said, 'If you're not keeping Staal, let me know,'" Rutherford said during a Thursday phone conversation. Rutherford let some time pass, then placed one more call with a simple message: Don't forget about me.
In the meantime, the Hurricanes' front office broke down every possible possibility of who they'd be willing to give up if Staal hit the market. A lot of legwork was done, so that when Shero finally called Rutherford at 4 p.m. on the day of the draft, he was ready. A deal was struck.
On Thursday, Shero spoke with the media to talk about the Evgeni Malkin contract extension. General managers around the league were surely listening for clues from Shero as to how that deal affects the Penguins' ability to sign defenseman Kris Letang to a contract extension. Letang is entering the final season of his contract, which comes with a cap hit of $3.5 million. After next season, Crosby and Malkin will have cap hits totaling $18.2 million per season, and Shero has to decide whether he wants to commit big money to a third player in Letang.
As of Thursday afternoon, Letang's camp hadn't heard from Shero but anticipated that negotiations would get serious within the next week.
In his comments to the media on Thursday, Shero made it clear that his priority is to sign Letang, but he didn't completely rule out a trade. It's going to come down to negotiations and how much of a discount Letang is willing to provide Pittsburgh to stay with that group. If he hits the market, his ticket would be huge.
As a free agent, the starting point would be $7-8 million per season at max length. To stay in Pittsburgh, it may have to be an eight-year deal closer to $6.5 million. Letang understands that the best deal will come on the open market; it's just finding out how big the difference is going to be. Those are conversations the two sides still need to have. And executives around the league will be watching closely.
The feeling from those I spoke with on Thursday is that Letang will sign an extension with Pittsburgh. It's a similar situation to Staal in that the best move would be to trade him if there's not a deal to be struck, but it's different in that the Penguins don't have two other world-class defensemen already on the roster the way they did at center last year.
"He's just entering the prime of his career," one Western Conference executive said of Letang. "He's an impact defenseman who generates offense, plays on your power play and is a competitive guy. They're going to try to get something done. These are hard players to find."
He pointed to the success the Blackhawks are having right now as proof of the value of mobile defensemen. Chicago forwards like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa receive a lot of the attention, but it starts with the transition game on the back end. You need defensemen who can skate and get the puck out of trouble quickly.
Letang wasn't great in this postseason and looked bad at times against the Bruins, but he still finished with 16 points in 15 games, averaging 27:37 of ice time in the postseason. Another executive said Letang's performance against the Bruins wouldn't scare off teams in the least if Shero decides to trade him.
"Not a chance," he said. "If they put him on the market, 29 teams would bid on him."
And the return would be huge, which is another reason the Penguins have to at least consider it if negotiations don't go well. This draft is as good as any in recent years. If Shero can find a way to get into the top portion by dealing Letang, he would land a player who can play immediately, while providing the Penguins the cap relief that comes with an entry-level deal.
The other factor to consider is that defense is the one area of depth in the Penguins' organizational reserve list. One of the most impressive things about Shero's trade-deadline shopping spree is that he landed big names without touching young defensemen like Derrick Pouliot, Simon Despres, Olli Maatta or Brian Dumoulin. Pouliot is the best of the group and projects as a potential replacement down the road if the Penguins trade Letang.
"I'm a huge Pouliot fan," one respected evaluator said. "He doesn't maybe have the bite that Letang has, but he's secure with the puck, mobile and can run a power play."
A deep prospect pool helps ease the pain of trading Letang, as does the thought of the package coming back. While 29 teams may be interested in Letang, not all of them have the assets the Penguins would require, but there are some possible fits. GM Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning currently sit in a great spot in the draft at No. 3 overall. The consensus is that the Lightning will take talented winger Jonathan Drouin, which would give them even more firepower up front on a team that already has Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. A defenseman like Letang is certainly a more pressing need for the Lightning, who could build a package around that pick to try to entice the Penguins to trade their franchise defenseman. It wouldn't take long for Drouin to become a star in Pittsburgh.
The Oilers also have needs on defense and are shopping the No. 7 overall pick. They have young forwards who could be moved in a deal for Letang, although his skill set may be too similar to Justin Schultz's for a deal to make sense. Another interesting option is Anaheim, where the Ducks have winger Bobby Ryan, who would look awfully good playing on a wing with Crosby or Malkin. The Ducks also are rich in goaltending, with potentially two No. 1 goalies in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, and arguably the best goalie prospect around in John Gibson. For what it's worth, Gibson is a Pittsburgh native.
San Jose may not have the assets to acquire Letang, but GM Doug Wilson always seems to be in the mix when a star player hits the market, as does Rangers GM Glen Sather. The Rangers may not have the depth needed to trade for Letang, but certainly have a need for a defenseman who shoots right-handed and who can improve a power play.
The list goes on because there's not a team out there that can't use a player of Letang's caliber. Knowing what we learned with Jordan Staal last year at this time, this isn't a situation that will likely linger into next season.
"Ray is a smart guy," one NHL source said. "He won't let assets walk out the door."