CH Column: Letang Is The Measure Of A Defenseman

This past Saturday, the NHL announced the three finalists for the Norris Trophy for this past season. Kris Letang was not one of them. This came to the dismay of many in Pittsburgh, who have watched Letang blossom into one of the game’s top defensemen over the years. Take everything that is said in this column knowing that this is coming from someone who has been critical of Letang throughout his career (and I’ll get into that in a bit), but this year, I am convinced that Kris Letang is a legit player, a bona fide superstar, and by the end of his career, may be the best Penguins defenseman ever. I believe him being left out of the Norris running is a joke, but I’m sure Letang himself cares more about a Stanley Cup than the Norris Trophy. Still, Letang’s play needs to be recognized by others outside of Pittsburgh.

I remember watching Letang play in the 2009 Cup run, thinking “this guy could be the guy that anchors our defense for years. He’s still young and raw, but man, when he develops in what he could become, he could be scary special.” Ok, those may not have been my EXACT words, but if I had to paraphrase my thoughts from back then, it’d be something similar to that. And after watching him for the last seven years, he’s gone through his ups and downs, both on and off the ice.

I’ll be honest, Letang used to be in my doghouse. And he was in it for quite a while. Call me conservative, but I’d rather one be more responsible and not as aggressive, even knowing that being aggressive pays off every now and then. With Letang, he either made a masterful play or an asinine play. That was what I couldn’t stand. I got sick and tired of him getting caught too deep in the offensive zone, disregarding his teammates, especially his defensive partner, leaving them out to dry. Even for a while, either ex-GM Ray Shero or current GM Jim Rutherford tried to bring in “stay at home” defensemen to prepare themselves for Letang being, well, Letang. Now, one thing that I won’t hold against Letang in regards to being aggressive in the offensive zone is, as a hockey player, when a defensman joins the rush and goes down low, a forward (primarily the winger) needs to recognize that and drop back to the point, just in case the other team gets the puck, so you don’t give up a two-on-one. But in the end, communication is the key there. I don’t know when that would happen if it was a lack of communication or whatever, but that fact is, it happened too often. Letang also tended to get a little sloppy in the defensive zone, either by forcing breakout passes and turning the puck over, especially in the defensive zone, or playing a forechecker too aggressively and leaving his goalie out to dry. And Letang’s biggest flaw over the years has been his temper. It flares up during games. In the past, he’s taken dumb penalties at bad times. And man, that mouth of his. For all those that thought Crosby barked at the refs more than anyone, sorry, but Crosby wasn’t even the worst on his team. It seemed like every time Letang got called for a penalty, he was barking at the refs. No matter how right or wrong refs are (yeah, most of the time they’re wrong), they don’t like it. They remember it. And you (reader), remember this thought about his mouth. I’m going to come back to it later.

Don’t get me wrong, this all sounds harsh. And, I’m no hockey expert, otherwise, I’d be paid for it. And by no means did I think that he was a poor defenseman. From 2009-2013, he was a combined +53. That’s dang good. And maybe I was so hard on him because I expected a little more consistency from him. Some guys get it right away. Some guys don’t get it for a while. And some guys don’t get it at all. But I’ll tell you what, he’s gotten it now. Big time.

In early 2014, Kris Letang suffered a stroke. This dude is in his twenties. He had a stroke. How often does that happen? Seriously? Literally, at his age, .01% of the time. I was starting to really come around on Letang around this time. I liked what I was seeing from him. I saw him maturing, trying to become a more responsible defenseman. And, forget hockey for a minute. This guy has a wife and son. He needs to be there for them. Then he had the stroke. I, along with many others, wondered if he could play hockey again. A stroke, no matter how minor, is nothing to dismiss. I was rooting for him to return, and come back better than ever, but I was totally understanding if he would’ve had to consider retirement. Life and family are way more important than a game or a job. We all witnessed that within the past couple years with Pascal Dupuis’ situation. But doctors assured Letang that hockey wasn’t the cause of the stroke and they cleared him to return. He ended up playing the last three regular season games that year and all thirteen playoff games, playing as much as 28 minutes in a game. Letang trained hard over the offseason and returned, ready to play for a new GM and new coach.

Over the last couple seasons, Letang has matured vastly. He has become a very responsible defensemen, playing with physicality and excellent technique in the defensive zone, while not sacrificing his skills offensively. He’s always been great at moving the puck in all three zones. He’s a great skater. He’s got great speed. And, especially this year, he has matured in just about every facet of the game. He has become the elite defenseman that I saw him becoming. He’s actually exceeded what I thought he could do. He’s logged minutes this year he’s never done before. He’s broken his own career-high in minutes multiple times this season. He plays on the powerplay, he kills penalties, he plays against the opposing teams’ top stars, and he’s had multiple defensive partners over the season. And he’s done all of it without missing a step. And his numbers since Mike Sullivan took over the coaching responsibilites are stupid good. In the 46 games under Sully, he’s recorded 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists), which is 1.15 PPG. He’s flourished in Sully’s system, but Letang is not just a product of the system. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone on this team is. Sully puts trust into the 20 guys that take the ice game in and game out. Letang has constantly answered the call and earned the praise of his coach in the process. Letang has done everything he can to become the best player he can be, and he’s done a dang good job at it too. He’s earned my praise, otherwise I wouldn’t take the time to write this. This is the first player profile I’ve done on this site, and he’s well deserving of it.

If I have a theory on why Letang wasn’t considered even as a Finalist for the Norris (or even the Masterton last year after returning from a freaking stroke), it’s his reputation (picking up from my previous thought earlier). Fans don’t like guys who complain, but refs REALLY don’t like guys who complain. And they won’t help out the guys they don’t like. Case and point is game two against Washington in this year’s playoffs. Letang was slashed, punched, and slashed and punched again, and nothing was ever called. Letang makes a clean, defensive play, and gets called for tripping. I mean, seriously:

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What a joke, right? But when the refs don’t like you, they won’t help you out. It’s stupid and it’s not right or fair, but I really think Letang’s reputation could possibly be a reason why he doesn’t get the respect or credit he deserves. Now, Letang has even admitted himself, that he’s getting better about it. He knows barking at officials does absolutely nothing. Sully has helped out in that regard as well. It’s one of the reasons why he’s the coach this team needed. And Letang has reaped all the benefits from it. Now you bet, he was screaming at the refs after that one last night. I was too. I don’t there was a voice wearing black and gold last night that wasn’t. It gift-wrapped a Washington game-tying goal. And I’m not saying he can never plead his case, but he’s got to make strides to earning the officials’ respect back. It’s clear they don’t have any for him, so what does Kris need to do? Shut up and play hockey. And you know what? He’s done it for the majority of the year. Just that. And he’s played at levels that exceed human ability.

Yep, the Penguins have an elite defensemen. His name is Kris Letang. And we wouldn’t trade him for anyone. Not Karlsson, Doughty, or Burns. They’re all great defenseman, but Letang is ours. And he may not get the credit he deserves on the level he deserves, but we know the truth. And he’ll take a Stanley Cup over a Norris Trophy. Every time.

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Just keep doing it, Kris. They’ll have to hand the Norris over to you eventually. And if you keep playing the way you played in game two, they won’t have choice. #LetangForNorris


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