‘I hope I stay here. I hope forever.’

For 16 years, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have been the last two to make their way out of the tunnel as their team prepares for puck-drop, the last two to step on the ice in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins faithful. The pair has led the organization through a rollercoaster decade and a half — four Stanley Cup Final appearances, three championship parades, along with four scoring titles and 10 MVP nodes between them.

Whether the black and gold’s starring duo will return for a 17th year together, though, is unclear.

Playing out the final season of an eight-year, $76-million deal signed with Pittsburgh back in 2013, Malkin heads into this off-season as an unrestricted free agent. His club, meanwhile, has some tough decisions to make after it endured its fourth-straight first-round exit — this dip following a second-round loss to the eventual champion Capitals in 2018, and back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Complicating matters further is the fact that No. 1 defenseman Kris Letang is also a UFA, along with versatile top-six winger Bryan Rust, and a number of other depth pieces.

Speaking with the media Tuesday as his Penguins close the book on a disappointing conclusion to their 2021-22 season, Malkin clarified where he stands as negotiations on a potential new deal continue.

“It’s hard for me to say right now,” Malkin said when asked if he expects to remain with the Penguins. “We just lost a couple days ago. It still hurts. I understand it’s a business. I love this city, I love these fans so much. But I know, if team wants new blood, young guys, [if they] say to me, ‘You should move on,’ I’m fine. I understand it’s a little bit tough year for me. But we’ll see, I’m glad to be here 16 years — great city, great fans. We’ll see what’s going on.

“I hope I stay here. I hope forever. That I withdraw here. But again, I understand it’s a business.”

While many throughout the hockey world have wondered aloud what Malkin’s next number could look like, the only certainty is that it’s sure to be below the $9.5 million he earned this season. Past that, though, opinions differ.

The 35-year-old has missed significant time with injuries over the past three seasons, but has been near or above a point-per-game pace when he has been healthy, showing flashes of the all-world skill that earned him a pair of 100-point seasons (and two scoring titles) in his younger days. In his latest 32 Thoughts, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that Malkin and the Penguins discussed a three-year deal, but were far apart on the cap number.

Malkin joked about money not being a factor in his next contract earlier this season, but clarified Tuesday how that number will realistically factor into his decision moving forward.

“It’s hard. I believe I’m still a good player. And I believe good players sign good contracts,” he said. “If I say once ‘I’m a rich guy,’ it doesn’t mean I deserve a $1 million contract. But I mean, I knew my price and my agent knew my price, and I think the team knew my price. Again, it’s business. But we’ll see what’s going on. I hope we sign a good deal.

“I want to play three, four years. Money’s not a big deal, but I have family, I have parents. I want a good future for them.”

If No. 71 does end up moving on from Pittsburgh, it’ll be a tough close to a thrilling chapter for the Penguins faithful, one that’s seen Malkin and Crosby keep the Penguins among the class of the NHL for the majority of their tenure together .

It’s a journey the smooth-skating Russian hopes to continue. But he’s preparing for the end too, in case his Pittsburgh story’s run its course.

“Pittsburgh is my second hometown. I’m here 16 years, it’s amazing,” Malkin said. “I hope we find a way to all [be] happy, you know. It’s amazing if you can play 20 years, or 19 or whatever, with one club. It’s amazing. … The salary cap has not moved on that much this year. It’s all business. But I’m ready [for] both ways—if I stay, I’ll be so much happier. But if not, okay, I’ll move my family to another city and hope to show my best hockey.”

As for Nos. 87 and 58, and the success Malkin was able to have with the pair, the centreman made clear the trio’s bond goes beyond the game at this point, regardless of what happens next.

“It’s amazing. My two brothers—one Canadian, one French-Canadian,” he said of Crosby and Letang with a laugh. “I mean, I love both. It’s not just hockey, it’s life. We’ve spent so much time together, we know each other pretty well. Sid’s an amazing guy — he’s my favorite player, favorite guy.”

But central to the negotiations being had behind closed doors is not all that Malkin has accomplished in Pittsburgh, but what he can accomplish moving forward. What kind of player he can be in these last few seasons of his big-league career.

Though he knows the doubters are writing him off, the former Art Ross, Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe winner believes he can return to the form that made him one of the world’s best for more than a decade.

“I believe in myself,” he said. “I know it’s a hard year from me, it’s a big injury. But now I’ll [get] a little bit of rest, and probably it’ll be the hardest summer in my life, for sure. I want to be back at the next level next year, and show my best for sure. I want to play all 82 games, again make the playoffs — I still believe I will play [in a] final or semi-final. I believe we still have a chance if I stay here. We still have a great organization, great coach. We still have a chance to win. … I know when I’m healthy, I know when I feel confidence, I’m a good player.

“I believe in my body. I believe in myself. And this summer will be good for me — I’ll rest a little bit more, no injury. I feel amazing. It’s a new challenge for me, for sure — I want to get back to my level, and prove I’m still a good player.”

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