Even though Kris Letang isn’t the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is a strong argument to be made he is probably their most important player, the most difficult to replace, and the one they can not afford to lose if they are going to win another Stanley Cup.
That is why the Penguins’ announcement on Wednesday that Letang will be sidelined for 4-6 months due to a herniated disc in his neck is such a significant blow to their Stanley Cup chances, even if they get all of their other injured players back in the lineup in time for the start of the postseason. None of them are Kris Letang.
In all honesty, they would probably have a better chance to win it all if they had a healthy Letang, but were without one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, than they do with both Crosby and Malkin, but no Letang.
The thought process behind this is simple. Without one of Crosby or Malkin they still have another No. 1 center. They still have a forward that can drive the offense. But when you take Letang out of the lineup, there is nobody else that can play the 28 minutes per night that he does in the playoffs. There is nobody else that can dictate the pace of the game in every key situation the way Letang does. There is nobody else that can serve as a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger. Or join the rush as smoothly as he does. Or chase down just about any forward in the NHL.
Crosby might be the Penguins’ heart and soul, but Letang is the engine the makes the whole system run.
“He’s an elite player and a great teammate,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday. “He’s a tough guy to replace.”
Every Stanley Cup team needs that type of workhorse defenseman, and every one that wins has it. The Penguins have Letang. The Chicago Blackhawks have Duncan Keith. The Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty. The Boston Bruins had Zdeno Chara.
So how are the Penguins going to make this work?
The biggest key will be the play of Justin Schultz, because he is probably the one defender on the blue line that can at least somewhat replace some of what Letang does, at least when it comes to sparking the offense.
After starting to regain some of his confidence late last season and in the playoffs following the trade from Edmonton, Schultz’s career has taken a massive step forward in 2016-17.
With 49 points in 76 games he is starting to resemble the player the Edmonton Oilers thought he would be so many years ago.
But he has mostly been doing that in a complementary, support role. Now he has to be not only one of the go-to guys on defense, but perhaps the go-to guy.
Since Letang went out of the lineup on Feb. 28 no defenseman on the team has logged more minutes per game than Schultz’s 23:42, and while his play has remained strong, his production has fallen off a little from where it was before then. Prior to March he was averaging 0.66 points per game and was a 52 percent corsi player in 19 minutes per game. Since March 1 he is at 0.55 points per game and is a 49 percent corsi player. And again, there is also the fact that for as good as he has been, he still isn’t Kris Letang.
If the Penguins have one thing going for them it is the fact they were at least somewhat prepared for something like this and have some depth thanks to the trade deadline additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit.
Think back two years ago to when Letang was also sidelined for the playoffs and the Penguins went into their first-round series against the New York Rangers having to rely on the likes of Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy to play 22 minutes per night, while also using Taylor Chorney on their bottom pairing. That was a bad situation.
Things are not quite that dire this time around. With Hainsey, Streit, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and the possible returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, they at least have enough bodies to piece together a very formidable NHL defense that can help them compete.
To their credit, they have been able to withstand Letang’s absence (on top of several other key players) for the better part of the past two months. They have the quantity on the blue line to maybe get through it.
They just don’t have the elite, No. 1 guy.
Where that becomes a problem is the playoffs are an entirely different animal than the regular season.
While the Penguins have been able to get by in recent weeks, it may not be as easy when they have to play a playoff caliber team every night for potentially seven games. That team might be able to better exploit that weakness. They will not get the occasional game against a last place team or non-playoff team that they can sneak past.
And for the Penguins, coming out of the Metropolitan Division bracket their postseason path is going to have to take them through Columbus and most likely Washington in the first two rounds if they are going to come out of the Eastern Conference again. That is two of the four best teams in the NHL right now.
Even with Letang that would have been a tall mountain to climb.
It is simply that much steeper without him.