Kris Letang's season this year was somewhat of an enigma. At times, he'd look out-of-place and indecisive, teetering on the brink of defensive liability. At other times, he'd look strong and confident, with a maturing shot and fluid skating. Hooks posted the Letang season wrap-up about a week ago, and there's a ton of good information in that story and comment threads. Yet a lot of the discussion focused on Letang's inconsistency, and whether or not he'll rebound next year. As a young player, this is quite possibly the most important question.
I'm going to look at Letang's regular season numbers this year and try to evaluate how he performed. My take is also supposed to be a description (hopefully accurate) of what we can expect from Letang in the future. When Ray Shero announced that Letang signed a four year contract extension with a yearly salary cap hit of $3.5 million, he also implicitly announced that the organization is committed to Letang as a fundamental member of the Penguins' core. What we can glean from this season as it relates to Letang's development should give us an idea of what he'll be like in the future.
Let's do this.
#58 / Defenseman / Pittsburgh Penguins
Apr 24, 1987
|2009 - Kris Letang
I think that an easy way to look at Letang's season is to break down the component parts and analyze them separately. A good place to start would be looking at Letang's ice time.
Ice Time: Perhaps one of the most surprising stats is that Letang led the Penguins this year in even strength ice time per game with 17:21. Even though he didn't play in nine games this season, he still had the second-highest total of even strength minutes on the team (Crosby was number one). Letang's even strength Corsi numbers indicate that he worked to make the most of those minutes. Relative Corsi is simply Corsi On Ice - Corsi Off ice, and Corsi is a +/- metric for shots (for example, if I'm on the ice for 5 shots for and 10 shots against, my Corsi is -5). Letang was 3rd on the team with a +12.1 relative Corsi, meaning that when he was on the ice, the puck spent a majority of the time in the opponent's zone.
As far as special teams are concerned, Letang saw 2:49 of powerplay time per game and 1:22 of shorthanded time. That puts him at 7th and 13th respectively on the team. His total time on ice per game was 21:33, good for third on the team, and this leaves some room for Letang to start getting more powerplay minutes next year. He didn't play the toughest minutes on the team, however, because he was on the ice for more o-zone draws than d-zone draws.
Teammates and Competition: Looking at the quality of teammates and competition for Kris Letang will help provide some context to his offensive and defensive numbers. Using the QCOMP measure at Behind the Net, Letang's quality of competition at even strength more than doubled this year compared to last year, going from 0.02 to 0.045. This places him at 6th on the team and 3rd among defensemen. Tanger also saw slightly tougher competition on the powerplay and the penalty kill this year.
For teammates, I used the even stregnth QTEAM stats at behind the net. Letang saw a nice increase in the even strength and powerplay quality of teammates this year as compared to last year. His 0.099 even strength QTEAM put him at 7th on the team. In terms of the penalty kill, Letang saw a slight decrease in teammates, but this isn't too significant since Letang was negligible as a penalty killer. Overall, Letang saw a strong increase in the quality of teammates while on the ice, but this is expected considering he saw more ice time this year. He would invariably be out there with the top players more often.
Offense: Letang finished this season with 27 points (3g, 24a). Among defensemen who played at least 40 games, Letang's 1.06 points per 60 min of even strength ice time is 21st out of 201 (interestingly, Sergei Gonchar is 15th and Brooks Orpik is 10th). His 24 assists set a career high, and he averaged 0.37 points per game this year, compared to 0.45 in 2008 and 0.27 in 2007. While his point per game rate in 2009-2010 was right in line with his career average (0.36), the drop-off from his 2008-2009 campaign was a result of his decrease in goals scored. What happened? Letang's 2009-2010 shooting percentage was way below his career average. In other words, he got really unlucky.
To better understand the shooting percentage anomaly, lets look at Letang's shot rates over his career. Letang had the highest shot rates of his career this past season, averaging 2.38 shots on goal per game and 1.32 missed shots per game. Those are much higher than his previous rates, which were 1.86 SOG/per game and 0.78 MS/per game in 2008-2009, and 1.08 SOG/game and 0.6 MS/game in 2007-2008. It's really good that Letang is attempting more shots per game as his career progresses, as this shows an increase in aggressiveness and maturity, and fits right in with Bylsma's system. Yet Letang's increase in shots per game wasn't enough to overcome his dramatic decrease in shooting percentage. In Letang's rookie year, he had an 8.8% shooting percentage, followed by a 7.2% clip in 2008-2009. That plummeted to 1.7% this season, which is so abnormally low that it is bound to come up dramatically in the future.
One cool way to illustrate this is using a couple of graphs. For Letang's career, he has played in 210 total regular season games. Dividing that up into 20-game segments gives you 11 data points, each representing his shooting percentage over a 20 game span.
Beyond the similarities between the scatter plot and the line graph, the line above labeled 8 per. Mov. Avg. is a moving average trendline. It's job is to smooth out the data and show a trend more clearly. To specifically look at Letang's shooting percentage this year, I set the line to average the quarters for this season (Q8 - Q11). The steep negative slope shows that Letang's shooting percentage declined sharply this year. This can't continue forever, however, because Letang would soon end up with a negative shooting percentage. Encouragingly, we began to see evidence of that prediction in the playoffs this year. Though the 13 game sample is small, Letang had a 21.7% shooting percentage, scoring 5 goals on 23 shots. Letang's shooting percentage spike in the playoffs was the beginning of an upwards regression toward his career shooting percentage.
Defense: Using the even strength adjusted +/- from Behind the Net, Letang was 12th on the team with a -0.05. This means that the team has a slightly better GF:GA ratio when Letang is off the ice than when he is on it. This isn't surprising because Letang did not have a marvelous defensive season. But did he improve? Well, in 2008-2009, Letang finished with an adjusted +/- of -0.87. The improvement alone from -0.87 to -0.05 is enough to warrant praise, but when you factor in the reality that Letang's quality of competition more than doubled this year (0.02 to 0.045), his improvement is truly remarkable.
Letang was also 7th on the team with 117 hits, 4th in blocked shots at 95, and tied for fourth with 28 takeaways. The downside is that his 48 giveaways were 3rd on the team, right behind Crosby and Malkin. Yet that number is as much as product of his defensive shortcomings as it is of his high TOI/game. The players who play and touch the puck the most will always have the most giveaways. Nonetheless, Letang needs to cut back on his giveaways in the future.
I hope this write-up helped to clarify certain aspects of Letang's season. Yes there were some inconsistencies, but there was ultimately a lot more good than bad. Letang's defense wasn't stellar, and he tended to give the puck away more than you'd like. He also needs to work on his shooting accuracy so he doesn't throw so many missed shots toward the net. But he set a career high in assists, shouldered the load as the go-to even strength defenseman, and did all of this against the toughest competition he's seen in his entire career. All in all, he had a good year, and he didn't struggle as much defensively as some might think.
Considering that his shooting percentage is due for a major shift upwards, and that he'll see more time on the first powerplay unit next year, we can expect Letang to set some new career highs in offense next year. If that combines with the rate of improvement he displayed this season, he will be a great defenseman for many years to come. Obviously, that bodes very well for the future of the Penguins.