Kris Letang hasn't played a hockey game since February 21, and he won't for the rest of this season either, it was announced today:
Kris Letang will undergo surgery for a herniated disc in his neck. The recovery period is expected to be 4-6 months. https://t.co/Q3Fjb0wSkp pic.twitter.com/sSSezzNNIf— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 5, 2017
It's a tough blow to take, especially for Letang who was out the 2015 playoffs as well:
Letang: "Right now it's hard to swallow. It was not expected. Like I've done in the past, I'm going to put my energy into getting better."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 5, 2017
Obviously, there's no one player than can replace the top defenseman.
#Pens HCMS: We're not asking anybody to replace Letang, what we're asking is for everybody to be at their very best.— Josh Getzoff (@PensJG) April 5, 2017
So, how will the Pens replace Letang? What reasons not to jump off a cliff at the word of this tough, tough news?
1: They're used to not playing with him
Since Letang left the lineup in February, the Penguins are 12-5-3 and that's while dealing with a ton of other injuries to important players as well. That's a 111 point pace over a quarter of a season without Letang. Letang also only played 41 regular season games this season, which means he will also be missing 41 regular season games this season. This team is well-adjusted to playing without their star defenseman.
There's no doubt Pittsburgh is better with Letang, and it would be way preferable to play with him rather than play without him...But on the other side of the coin, they've played without him for a long time and put up an encouraging sample, showing that they can compete even without arguably their most irreplaceable player.
2: Everyone else should be healthy...(Well, almost)
The strength of the Penguins since the Penguins have been strong is their forwards. Sullivan said today that Evgeni Malkin will travel with the team and is expected back for the playoffs. Bryan Rust left the game last night but was now described as day-to-day with the encouraging kicker from the coach of "don't expect it to be long-term". That's a majorly dodged bullet considering he left the game last night favoring a leg.
Olli Maatta is skating with the team again. Trevor Daley is cleared for contact. Ron Hainsey has been back for a while now and has been steady. This is all good news.
Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin still seem a ways off, but the roster the Penguins play with in the playoffs will be much improved from any roster they had in the month of March, which as mentioned above, they still played pretty solid hockey outside of a few stinker games.
Realistically, the Penguins chances for postseason success just took a huge hit. Perhaps insurmountable. But the beauty of the NHL playoffs is how rapidly things can change, and how wins still have to be earned. The Penguins won a game against Washington last season without Letang, a game on paper they looked hopelessly mis-matched. One game is not a series, but the larger point remains- one game at a time, one round at a time.
Things looked dire in 1992 when Adam Graves (fuck Adam Graves) slashed and broke Mario Lemieux's wrist but the then defending Cup champions went on to go 4-1 without Lemieux, then he came back and they won the last 7games to roll to another Cup. It'll be different this year, since Letang won't be returning, but another lesson to take: a great team has to find ways to rally and push forward.One player can help a team, but one player doesn't make a team.
Really rough news big picture, but come next week when the playoffs begin the Penguins will just have to bunker down with the players they got and take it one shift at a time.