Letang Injury Means Eaton Could Play Mentor to Pens' Next Star Defenseman

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If Letang's injury keeps him on the mend for long, Eaton should find himself paired with Simon Despres, the Pens' best young offensive-defenseman since Letang.

How stacked was the Penguins' defense corps in the 2009 Stanley Cup run?

Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy front-runner and the leading scorer amongst all NHL blue liners so far this season, was the team's sixth defenseman.

Following an undisclosed injury suffered in Sunday's 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins, Letang is still considered day-to-day without any real update on the nature of his injury other than "lower-body." Should Letang miss Tuesday's home date with the Washington Capitals or any further contests, that opens a spot in the line-up for 21-year-old rookie Simon Despres.

Despres, like Letang from 2007-09, could benefit from having the veteran Eaton as his primary defense partner.

Eaton was Letang's partner in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Letang's first two full years in the NHL. A third-round selection in the 2005 draft, Eaton helped Letang begin to make the transition from a highly-skilled offensive defenseman into an all-around, 25:00 minute per game player.

"[Letang is] definitely more mature," Eaton said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That comes with the experience. He could always skate. He always had a great shot. He was always skilled. He was always pretty strong defensively, too.

"The more experience you get, the stronger you get in your own zone."

Ray Shero's Penguins have traditionally been flush with blue-chip blue-liners. Such is the case with Despres, the team's first-round selection in the 2009 draft. The 6'4" defenseman is averaging just over 14:00 TOI while having been a healthy scratch in nine of the team's 30 games, but is a plus-8 and leads all Penguins defenders in On-Ice CORSI.

The Penguins have eight everyday blue-liners at the NHL level, including a bottom-four that has rotated Eaton, Despres, Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo.

That's very similar to the team's situation in 2009, when Philippe Boucher and Alex Goligoski gave the Penguins a 7-8 pairing that allowed them to dress seven defensemen on any given night, or lean on their depth in case of injury.

However, Eaton and Letang weren't just a third pairing. They were counted on to eat as many as 20:00 minutes per game during the Cup run, each averaging more than 18:00 TOI per playoff game (currently, no defenseman outside the team's top-four of Orpik, Martin, Letang and Niskanen is averaging more than 16:03 TOI).

It was Eaton's veteran stability that allowed the Pens to give the still-developing Letang more prominent minutes. If Letang is injured for any significant amount of time, Eaton should be able to provide the same reliable yin to Despres' offensive yang.

And there's no edict that says Letang must be hurt for the two to play together.

"It's always good to have that on your mind, that you have somebody that's going to back you up and make good decisions," Letang said of being reunited with Eaton this year. "It's always good when you want to be a guy that jumps in the play and brings some offense to have a partner that is really reliable."

Like Letang, Despres is capable of bringing offense from the blue line. Without Letang, the Penguins may have to count on him to do so.

He's already shown that he has the chops to create offense.

When your defenders are leading the rush like Despres did in helping to create Brandon Sutter's overtime winner against Montreal (the goal that sparked the first victory of the team's current nine-game winning streak), it's best to do whatever it takes to keep them productive.

This is especially true in Despres' case. Without Letang, only Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen have the ability to man the top power play or be counted on to successfully join a rush into the offensive zone.

Four years his junior, Despres has the tools to recreate some of the offense Letang brings on every shift.

Pittsburgh has made a point of pairing offensive-minded defensemen with shutdown players in the past. Orpik was paired with Sergei Gonchar during the Cup run, and again with Letang last season. Eaton may not be a shutdown defender in the loftiest sense of the term, but he is as smart and responsible a defender as the Pens have on the roster.

"He's a veteran guy that makes good decisions on the ice with the puck," Letang said of Eaton. "Without the puck, he's a great defensive player."

Like every coveted position in hockey, offensive-defensemen don't grow on trees. Despres has the physical tools and offensive upside to one day match Letang's level of defensive physicality and offensive production.

Molding him into that player starts with playing him with a stabilizing veteran, like Eaton.

"I know I can make a play and not worry with [Eaton]," Letang said.

That kind of confidence could go a long way in helping Despres' development, too.

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