Kris Letang polished off a Norris Trophy nominated season in 2012-13 with an atrocious playoff that left many fans concerned, but not the Pens coaching staff or front office, who rewarded Letang with an 8 year $58 million extension, which kicks in next season. In the interim, Letang has doubled down on concerns about his hockey sense by making huge mistake after huge mistake. Then, he suffered a stroke. Since returning, he has played well in the regular season, but the playoffs have revealed that he simply cannot play well under pressure anymore.
So what's the "real" problem? From least to most kind:
Kris Letang is a "soccer diva." Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Christiano Ronaldo, or Zinedine Zidane, Letang is just too arrogant for words, and plays according to his own inclinations, which are ego driven, rather than driven by a) the team's system or b) the game situation. The success of Nisky and Maata are perhaps making him a little jealous.
Kris Letang is bothered by something in his personal life. The responsibilities of fatherhood, lingering grief over Luc Bourdon's 2008 death, or something. Is MAF's sport's psychologist taking new patients? Not to be insensitive, but NHL players deal with this stuff all the time.
Kris Letang is misunderstood. He wants to do well, He needs to do well. He wants to be the best. He needs to be the best. Maybe he does too much. All that pressure and criticism built up in his head and it finally got to him. He thought he was over it, after the stroke, but turns out, he hasn't escaped the Bad Decision Vortex.
Kris Letang doesn't fit in Bylsma's system. Despite the offensive nature of Bylsma's system, it doesn't really have much room for freelancing defenders. Olli Maata and Matt Niskanen are defensemen par excellence for Bylsma's system. Mobile, just big and physical enough, methodical, good passers, hard, reliable point shots, great hockey sense. And little to no ego. They will jump in the play, but they will rarely force it.
Kris Letang needs a swift kick in the ass. Perhaps Dan Bylsma should sit Kris down and say, "hey, if we are going to lose, I'd rather lose without you." and bench his ass for at least the remainder of Round 1. The other benefit would be the message sent to the other members of the team, who perhaps are not used to this sort of tough love, what they can expect if they a) don't produce or b) consistently let their teammates down. At this point, Dan Bylsma has to realize that Letang has a coach killer vibe about him.
At the same time, however, Kris Letang has the Penguins by the balls. Currently, the alternative to him on D is Bortuzzo, who I like better in my mind than he plays on the ice. Bortuzzo just doesn't seem like he is used to being 6 foot 4. Maybe next season he will be. Engelland is fine, in spurts. But him and Scuderi...yikes! Despres? Not bloody likely.
Beyond this season, Letang is untradeable, thanks both to his contract and his play, so....how to keep him on the ice without allowing him to do as much damage by his mistakes?
Perhaps we need to think outside of the box:
Kris Letang needs to be Sid's Right Wing. Can Letang play offense? Can he cover the point? Can he work the wall on the breakout? Who knows? But he is a phenomenal hockey player. Of all the positions on the ice, Wing is the least taxing defensively (though critical to a team's success). Maybe if Kris decides to freelance from the RW position he won't put the rest of the team in such a bad position. Maybe he'll free up some room for Sid. There was another free spirited Dman on a deep team that got converted to wing, Brent Burns, and it worked out well.
I don't know who the 3rd pairing D would be, but dressing Engelland allows the Pens to flex Letang and Engo at F as the situation, and Kris's Pens Threat Level, demands.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Perhaps not yet, but better too soon than too late.