Kris Letang is one of the absolute best defensemen in the NHL. There are maybe only one or two defensemen in the league that can match his skating, he is a force offensively and he is a 25-minute per night player — being used in every situation — for the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
When he is on the ice he is a total game-changer for the Pittsburgh Penguins and one of their most important cogs. When he was sidelined for the second half of last season and the entire postseason due to a back injury there was some very real and legitimate concern that it would negatively impact their chances of repeating. They ended up repeating anyway, but weren’t quite as dominant and played noticeably different than they did the year before with Letang in the lineup. His absence was still big.
The biggest drawback for him as a player is that he tends to miss a lot of games due to injury. Since the start of the 2011-12 season he has appeared in more than 51 games just two times in six seasons, and never played in more than 71 during that stretch.
Some of it has been bad luck (the health scare that sidelined him during the 2013-14 season) but some of it comes from his style of play. He is aggressive, he plays big minutes, and he is pretty fearless on the ice, doing everything he can to make every single play, even if it means taking a big hit. And he takes a ton of hits.
When it comes to the latter part, the Penguins are looking for him to use better judgement to avoid taking some of those hits.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said over the weekend, via Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he would like to see Letang recognize when there isn’t a play to be made and not expose himself to a potentially dangerous hit.
Here is Sullivan, via the Post-Gazette:
“We would like him to recognize those situations when he might have to use the glass and make a simple play and not put himself in vulnerable situations,” Sullivan said. “He’s a courageous kid. He’s brave. That’s part of what makes him as good as he is. And there’s going to be opportunities where he’s going to have to take hits for us to make plays. We don’t want him to change that aspect of his game.”
The Penguins are not looking for Letang to play a more conservative game overall or take away his creativity, they just want him to take some steps to help preserve himself physically so he can remain on the ice.
Sullivan added that he thinks all of the time Letang spent in the press box this past season will give him a different vantage point on the game and help him recognize the situations where he could potentially avoid a hit.
Letang only appeared in 41 games for the Penguins during the 2016-17 season but still recorded 34 points. That point-per-game average was fourth among all defensemen that appeared in at least 40 games, putting him behind only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman.
He has averaged 0.85 points per game since the start of the 2011-12 season, a mark that puts him behind only Karlsson among the league’s defensemen. When you combine that offensive ability with his play in his own zone and the way he can almost single handedly dictate the pace of the game when he is on the ice it should be clear why the Penguins want to do everything they can to protect him physically. He was arguably their best player during their 2016 Stanley Cup run.
He is quite simply a very rare and special player.