The Growth and Value of Kris Letang

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 26: Mark Letestu #17 of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins battle for control of the puck in the third period on February 26, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh defeated Columbus 4-2. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Other than Evgeni Malkin, only Kris Letang remained on the ice in the final minute of warm ups before the Feb. 26 battle against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There was a little something in his strides as he skated along the blue line. A purpose, one that made him stand out among the rest of his teammates in the second afternoon game of a back-to-back. Upon reaching the boards, he swooped toward the goal and slapped a few pucks toward the empty net. They miss. Letang's momentum carried him to the half boards and back around, repeating the process. I was fixated on the way Letang's skates dig effortlessly into the ice, his shoulder-length hair fanning out of the sides and back of his helmet. There is a confidence he exudes on the ice that has blossomed as of late

The image was entrancing, but it became very clear to me that Letang was scoring this afternoon.

Fast forward to the third period, the Pittsburgh Penguins were leading 2-1 and entering a power play. Malkin won the faceoff, chopping the puck back to James Neal who backhanded it to Letang on the blue line. Letang wasted no time. He collected the puck and in one swift motion, sent it sailing to the back of the cage. Amidst the flashing lights and pomp and circumstance, the referee stood by the goal enthusiastically waving it off. Goaltender interference on Chris Kunitz who brushed goalie Curtis Sanford's glove prior to Letang's shot; there would be no additional penalty on the play. The call was controversial and unpopular as the boos rained louder than the goal horn that filled the arena just seconds earlier. The Pens, especially Letang, made their case, but as always, it fell on deaf ears. It was the Pens' second goal called back in the game and the eighth time this season Kunitz factored in to a disallowed goal.

Play would continue, nevertheless.

With 40 seconds left in the power play, Jordan Staal charged down the left wing with Matt Cooke and Richard Park closing in on Sandford. He sent the puck in Cooke's direction whose attempted was stopped. After a quick scuffle, Park dropped the puck to Letang who was lurking on the point. Head up, Letang picked his post ripped a slapshot. The ping of the puck smacking the post could be heard in the South Side, quickly drowned out from the crowd's eruption when realizing that justice, and karma, was just served.

Letang celebrated his "second" goal of the game and all I could think was how fitting the last few sequences were and in retrospect, how they described Letang's development as an NHL defenseman and his place on the Pens.

It is widely known that the development of an NHL defenseman is as difficult as it is intriguing. Each defenseman who is lucky enough to skate on NHL ice has gone through his own rigorous training regime to get to where he is and it more often than not took longer to get there than, say, a winger.

Letang was no different than the norm. He was summoned to join the historic franchise in the third round of the 2005 draft under the pretense that his strong skating and natural offensive abilities would turn him into a top two defenseman who would see significant time on the power play. Two seasons later, he found himself a regular in the lineup but, like any young defenseman, struggled with manifesting confidence in his play. As such, his defining, offensive play wasn't quite up to par either. His shots were lacking. Despite any negatives, the potential was growing vibrantly like the long hair on his head.

And then last season happened.

Letang was always a good defenseman, but he entered the 2010-2011 season with a new purpose that could be seen and felt each time he took a shift. This was monumental, especially since long-time power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar had left the Pens for the Ottawa Senators in free agency. Letang's role on the blue line increased dramatically and he didn't disappoint.

If he was on the ice, Letang was everywhere and could easily be found joining an offensive rush. In turn, his point totals almost doubled and we are all cognizant of his buttery hands in the shootout. Most important, his confidence was present; Letang knew he was a valuable asset to the team and he played like it in all three zones. Power play goals, garbage goals, diving plays on two-on-ones, blocked shots, and punishing hits in the corners, Letang did it all and he was receiving Norris Trophy recognition as the NHL's Best Defenseman in the first half of the season.

His improvements carried over into this season, but what I began to notice more was the development of his emotions. Letang's always had an emotional streak to his game, but his temper has been on a much shorter leash. In his 40 games, he has 22 PIM, all minors. It wasn't uncommon to see his feisty side get the best of him when scuffles arose between whistles, eventually turning into power play opportunities for the opposition. But despite his temper and any trouble it has caused the Pens, he still performs. He does his job and he does it well, among the best in the NHL.

This is why his absences, following head shots from Max Pacioretty on Nov. 26 and Eric Nystrom on Feb. 29, have been apparent.

Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury have been making strong runs at team MVP, but Letang definitely deserves to have his name in the mix (though in the end, I do believe Malkin and Fleury are the MVP front runners). In the end, the MVP title doesn't matter; his value to the Pens has been immeasurable nonetheless.

Take a look:

  • The Pens have 23 PPGs this season. Letang has points on 14 of those goals. This means he's been a factor in approximately 61% of the Pens PPGs.
  • Letang has scored nine goals this season. Four of them have been on the power play and three were game winners.
  • To put things in perspective, keep in mind Letang only had eight goals last season.
  • Letang leads the Pens in total ice time per game (25:03). I know there have been times when it feels like he never leaves the ice.
  • Letang remains the Pens' leader among defenseman in assists (22) and points (31), despite missing so many games.
  • The most telling: in the last 18 power plays without Letang, the Pens only have one PPG. They went five straight games without scoring a PPG. In those five games, the power play percentage went from 20.7% to 19.6%.
There's a reason Letang is considered a core player like Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury. Without him, the Pens' chances at bringing home the Stanley Cup go down significantly which is why his speedy recovery and ability to remain healthy can make or break the rest of the season. So when it was announced today that Letang could could Crosby in a return to the lineup on Thursday against the New York Rangers, Pens fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. It's not that he has to return on Thursday, but that his return is sooner rather than later. Sooner makes us fans feel a lot better when the race for a playoff spot continues to intensify.

Letang has been on the fast track to becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL and, it started with taking the time to improve in both skill and confidence, facing some adversity, and ultimately excelling at his position. Those few sequences during the Blue Jackets game spoke volumes about Letang's progression throughout the seasons and he (and the rest of the team) is truly reaping the benefits of his hard work.

We can only hope the best is yet to come.
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