Getty

Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

29 Comments

The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins, Rangers, Capitals headline PHT’s mighty Metro Division preview

Getty
8 Comments

The Metropolitan Division hasn’t just produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Pittsburgh Penguins) and last two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals).

It’s also a division that runs deep. The Columbus Blue Jackets took the league by storm in 2016-17, and while Sergei Bobrovsky might not be sensational again, many still believe they’re legit. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders still boast significant strengths, while the Carolina Hurricanes are dark horse candidates once more.

Even the New Jersey Devils keep adding promising talent.

Let’s preview what might once again be the best division in the NHL.

Also, check out these other previews: Atlantic Division, Central Division, PHT’s picks and predictions.

Carolina Hurricanes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Columbus Blue Jackets

Poll/looking to make the leap

New Jersey Devils

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Islanders

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Rangers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Philadelphia Flyers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Pittsburgh Penguins

Poll/looking to make the leap

Something noteworthy from today:

Washington Capitals

Poll/looking to make the leap

Looking to make the leap: Haydn Fleury

Getty

This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes have built an impressive stockpile of young defensemen, arguably the best in the NHL.

Looking at their current NHL roster there isn’t one defensemen under contract for this season that is over the age of 26, while three of their best — and youngest — are all signed to long-term deals. Not only are they young, they are also already really, really good and just need a more stable goaltending situation behind them to help the Hurricanes take a big leap forward this season.

For as good and promising as that group already is, there is another young player in the pipeline that hasn’t even had a chance to make an impact yet in 2014 first-round pick (No. 7 overall) Haydn Fleury.

The 21-year-old Fleury is coming off of his first year of pro hockey, spending the 2016-17 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Other than missing part of the season due to injury it was mostly a successful pro debut for the young rearguard, appearing in 69 games and scoring seven goals to go with 19 assists and showing considerable improvement down the stretch following a slow start.

The logjam of young defensemen already in Carolina is going to make it tough for Fleury to crack the lineup, but the No. 6 spot on the blue line does seem to be up for grabs between him and Klas Dahlbeck. Even if he doesn’t grab that spot at the start of the season it seems reasonable to assume that at some point during the season — whether it be due to injury, a trade, or just a lack of performance from somebody else — that he is going to make his NHL debut.

When he does it will be just another promising young player added to a defensive core that already boasts Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Given the contracts Faulk, Slavin and Pesce are signed to, and the fact Hanifin and Fleury are still on their entry level deals it gives the Hurricanes a ton of flexibility when it comes to constructing their roster. Any of them would be attractive pieces in trade talks to make improvements elsewhere, or they can be the foundation of the defense — and the team itself — for the next six or seven years for a remarkably affordable price.

Hurricanes bet big again on young defense by extending Brett Pesce

Getty
9 Comments

The Carolina Hurricanes are wasting no time in locking up their defensemen of the future this summer.

Jaccob Slavin still has one year remaining on his rookie deal, yet they extended him for seven years at $5.3 million per season earlier this summer. They did something similar with fellow defenseman Brett Pesce today, handing him a six-year extension with a $4.025 million cap hit.

(That works out to $24.15 million overall.)

“Brett took another big step forward last season,” GM Ron Francis said. “He plays a smart defensive game and has good ability to move the puck and contribute offensively. We plan for him to be a part of the Hurricanes’ defensive corps for a long time.”

Much like Slavin, Pesce still has a year remaining on his current deal, so that $4.025M won’t begin until 2018-19.

During his sophomore season, Pesce saw big gains. He played all 82 regular-season games for the Hurricanes, generating 20 points and averaging 21:12 TOI, up from 18:46 during his rookie season.

Pesce’s offense was pretty average, but he showed serious promise in his own end, particularly for a player who is only 22.

Pesce and Slavin join Justin Faulk as Hurricanes defensemen with at least three-year commitments. Carolina still has three other blueliners slated to become RFAs next summer, including Noah Hanifin, whose value could really climb if his 2017-18 season goes well.

Hurricanes lock up Slavin through 2024-25

Getty
6 Comments

The Carolina Hurricanes announced a big signing today. Defenseman Jaccob Slavin has agreed to a seven-year contract extension with a $5.3 million cap hit.

Slavin has one year left on his entry-level deal, so this takes him through 2024-25.

“Jaccob is one of the cornerstones of our team moving forward, and it was important to secure him with our organization long term,” said GM Ron Francis in a statement. “We believe he is one of the top young defensemen in the NHL today, and are thrilled that he and his wife, Kylie, have made their home in Raleigh.”

From the press release:

Slavin, 23, posted career highs in points (34), goals (3), assists (29) and shorthanded points (4) during his first full NHL season in 2016-17. The Erie, CO, native led the Hurricanes in blocked shots (161), takeaways (83), time on ice per game (23:26) and shorthanded time on ice per game (3:07), and was tied for first in plus/minus with a plus-23 rating, the fourth-best plus/minus season in franchise history. Slavin ranked second in the NHL in takeaways, first among league defensemen in shorthanded points and tied for 10th among league blueliners in plus/minus.

The ‘Canes also have defenseman Justin Faulk signed for three more years, with youngsters Brett PesceNoah Hanifin, and Trevor van Riemsdyk all on cheap cap hits next season before they can become restricted free agents.

Slavin was a fourth-round draft pick in 2012 out of the USHL.

Related: Scott Darling trade ‘worth the risk’ for Hurricanes