When the Pittsburgh Penguins face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night, they will officially start the second half of their season.
If you were to hand out mid-season awards, defenseman Kris Letang would probably not only be the Penguins’ first half MVP (and with all due respect to the great season Sidney Crosby is having, Letang probably has been their best), he would be one of the top contenders for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender.
Other than Mark Giordano in Calgary and maybe Morgan Rielly in Toronto, there probably has not been anyone around the league that has impacted their team from the blue line as much as Letang has this season.
What makes it even more noteworthy for Letang is that the 2017-18 season was so brutal for him.
He was coming off of another significant injury that robbed him of half of the 2016-17 season and he was never really 100 percent at any point in the year.
That resulted in a terribly inconsistent year that was probably his worst full season performance in the NHL. Given that it was coming on the heels of the team winning its second consecutive Stanley Cup, and this time without him playing a major role due to missing the entire postseason with the aforementioned injury, it started another round of “Should the Penguins trade Kris Letang?” chatter around Pittsburgh and the league.
That chatter seems to happen at least once every year, and every year the Penguins are smart enough to know his value, keep him, and more often than not watch him make a huge impact.
The Penguins had every possible reason to bet on a bounce back season from Letang, and they have not only gotten it in a big way, they might be getting the best season of his career. Given that he is a multiple Cup winning defensemen who has been one of the most prolific scoring defenders in the NHL, and has finished in the top 10-of the Norris voting five times (including three times in the top-six), that is a bold statement. But when you look at his on-ice performance it is difficult to argue against that claim.
Let’s just take a minute and look at where he stands among the league’s top defenders at the moment.
When it comes to his offensive impact, his tied for the third most goals (10), is sixth in total points (39) and fifth in shots on goal (123).
Among defenders that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time so far this season, he is 18th in total shot attempt share (over 54 percent), second in goal differential (64 percent), and 22nd in scoring chance differential (55 percent).
Here is the list of defenders that sit in the top-25 in all six of those categories (goals, points, shots, shot attempt share, goal differential, scoring chance share) at this point in the season: Kris Letang, Mark Giordano.
That is it. That is the list. That is only two names.
And that is a great reflection of how dominant Letang (and Giordano). At least from a numbers point of view.
Even more than the numbers, Letang seems to have his burst back on the ice. When he is at his best there are few defenders in the league (or players in general) that can skate with him. Not only when it comes to leading the rush and joining the attack in the offensive zone, but his ability to recover and catch up to the play when it goes the other direction. He tends to play a high-risk game in that regard where he is going to take some chances when it comes to attacking offensively. But it usually works, and it’s a big part of what makes him such a dynamic player. When it doesn’t work, one of his best traits is his ability to recover and get back into the play. It’s not uncommon to see him lead the rush deep into the offensive zone and then chase the play down from behind when it goes in the other direction and break it up.
All of that was missing from his game a year ago.
All of it is back this season.
He and his regular partner, Brian Dumoulin, have been one of the best defense pairings in the league this season and have helped carry the Penguins’ blue line, taking on the big minutes and big assignments every night while completely dominating them.
It is a big reason why the Penguins have been one of the hottest teams in the league over their past 20 games and have climbed back to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings.
It is all, at this point, Norris Trophy worthy.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)