I wasn't always fully aware of just how good Letang has been for the Penguins. It's easy to use the traditional characteristics of a big, physical defenseman as the baseline for evaluating all defensemen, including players like Letang. Under this model, occasional lapses in the defensive zone and concerns over "toughness" and "physicality" can easily overshadow elite skating talent and a knack for puck possession.
Like all players, defensemen of every stripe should be judged by how well they put their team in a position to outscore the opposition. You can use Goals For%, but that's not as predictive as relying on shot metrics like Corsi and Fenwick. But to be doubly inclusive, the chart below contains Letang's five year average for GF% at 5v5, FF% at 5v5, CF% at 5v5, 5v5 points/60, and 5v4 points/60. His ranking is compared against the 116 defensemen who played 4000 or more 5v5 min the last five years (or among the 81 defensemen who played 500 or more 5v4 min the last five years).
|5v5 GF%||5v5 FF%||5v5 CF%||5v5 pts/60||5v4 pts/60|
|Kris Letang 2009-14||55.4% (12th)||54.2% (9th)||54% (9th)||1.16 (2nd)||3.67 (27th)|
It's easy to see just how incredible Letang has been over the last five years. At even strength, he's produced points at an insane rate and seen the majority of shots and goals while he is on the ice directed at the opposing net. His numbers on the powerplay are less eye-popping, but still comfortably in the top third of all defensemen. Considering that he's done this while hampered by critical injuries (including a stroke) is remarkable. As long as he stays healthy for a prolonged period of time, he will continue his dominance.
Corey Sznajder tracked zone entries and zone exits for every team last year. The data is not complete, but he's nearly finished with the project. What I want to do now is compare Letang's zone entry and zone exit numbers against other elite defensemen from last year.
Since I haven't found an easy way to sort through Corey's data on a league-wide basis, I'm going to compare Letang's zone exit success %, turnover %, and carry-in % (how often he carried the puck into the offensive zone with possession) against the 19 other defensemen who were in the top 20 5v5 CF% over the last five years.
An important disclaimer is that we don't have a robust sample yet because this is, at best, only one season's worth of data, and Letang missed significant time last year. And while we know that carrying the puck into the zone is important, it's generally forwards who do the heavy lifting. It's not clear if we should expect defensemen to do this as often, or how good at it they should be. Nevertheless, the data below displays the zone entry percentage for those 20 defensemen.
Judging by carry-in%, Letang again looks like one of the elite defensemen. He's bested by two acknowledged superstars in Doughty and Karlsson, and by an underrated Brian Campbell. Not only does Letang have the rare mixture of skating and stick-handling that allows him to carry the puck in with ease, but it's clear that over the past five years, he's been able to use that talent as much as possible.
Let's look at zone exit success percentage.
Letang is again at the top, this time beaten only by Karlsson. Compared to his elite defensive peers, Letang is driving play out of the zone better than nearly everyone else. This is strong evidence that should minimize any concern we have about Letang's play in the defensive end.
Finally, a look at turnover percentage.
Here Letang takes a hit, but I don't think it's a bad thing. Defensemen who handle the puck a lot and skate it out--like Karlsson--are going to have slightly higher numbers in this category. The good news is that the spread among these twenty defensemen isn't that big, so I am doubtful that Letang's 7% turnover rate is an indication that something is wrong. Though he may cough the puck up ever so slightly more than his peers, he's doing many other good things that outweigh these occasional miscues.
All in all, Letang is, and has been, an elite defensemen over the last five years. Whether looking at more traditional stats over a five-year span or zone entry data from last year, he ranks among the best in terms of moving play in the right direction. Time will tell if he puts up comparable numbers this year or manages to eclipse the benchmarks he set in the past. What we do know is that his salary is now a bargain with a rising cap, and he has an incredibly rare skillset that will become only more valuable as the league focuses more on speed and skill. So long as he remains a Penguin, Letang will continue to be the anchor for a dynamic and gifted blueline.