It has been a big start of the season for Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.
Not only does he look healthy, refreshed, and back to the player everyone expects him to be, he has probably been the team’s best player over the first month of the season, while he and his defense partner — Brian Dumoulin — have done their part to carry the group defensively.
They have been sensational.
It has also been a big start for Letang personally because he reached two personal milestones by becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen, and by scoring his 100th career goal, something that only Paul Coffey was able to do as a defenseman in a Penguins uniform.
I have always argued that Letang has been — by far — the most underappreciated member of this generation of Penguins players. When he is healthy and at his best he can be one of the most impactful players in the league at his position, and is among the absolute best at what he does. He can play 26 minutes per night in all situations, he can control the pace of the game when he is on the ice, and other than probably Erik Karlsson he really has not had any peers in the league during his career that can match what he does offensively from the blue line. Still, every time he turns the puck over (an overstated complaint; yes, he is guilty of turnovers from time to time, but so are all great players — the NHL’s yearly leaders in the giveaway statistic is a who’s who of the best players in the NHL) or misses time with an injury he gets vilified by a very vocal minority of the fan base. The same people that always try to turn him into a forward instead of acknowledging him for what he is: One of the best blue-liners to ever play for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So with all of that in mind, where exactly does Kris Letang rank among the Penguins’ all-time greatest defensemen?
It’s an interesting discussion because while the Penguins’ collection of great defensemen isn’t as lengthy as the list of great forwards, they do have some impressive names on the list — they just didn’t play here very long.
The discussion really has to revolve around five names: Letang, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy, and Randy Carlyle.
That excludes a lot of big names.
Ulf Samuelsson was a fan favorite and a valuable member to a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion, but he’s not on the level as the four mentioned above. I would say the same thing about Sergei Gonchar, who was tremendous during his time in Pittsburgh as a player and is something of a cult icon, but probably just outside of that top-four in the second tier. Ron Stackhouse has really good overall numbers, but it was mostly through two big seasons and he didn’t really have the overall or long-term impact as the four listed above.
Sergei Zubov should be a Hall of Famer but barely had what has turned out to be a rather infamous cup of coffee with the Penguins.
So let’s focus on the big four.
First, there is Randy Carlyle who still holds the honor of being the only Penguins defenseman to ever win the Norris Trophy. And Carlyle was a legitimately great player during his time in Pittsburgh, not only winning the Norris during the 1980-81 season, but for being one of the league’s elite scorers from the blue line, something that I think gets overshadowed by the whole “only Penguins defenseman to win the Norris Trophy” thing. During his time in Pittsburgh he was fifth among all defensemen in scoring, finishing behind only Dennis Potvin, Reed Larson, Borje Salming and Larry Robinson. His point-per-game average was ahead of Larson’s and comparable to the trio of Hall of Famers ahead of him. Big-time player for his day.
Paul Coffey is probably my personal pick for best Penguins defensemen not only for the Hall of Fame level of play and video game numbers, but also for the impact he made and how important his acquisition was.
I’ve always argued that drafting Mario Lemieux saved the Penguins, but trading for Paul Coffey is what made them a contender.
Coffey gave Lemieux his first actual superstar running mate in Pittsburgh, and it wasn’t until Coffey’s arrival that a Lemieux-led Penguins team actually made the playoffs. That team (thanks in part to a 113-point season from Coffey) was one Game 7 loss away from the Wales Conference Finals. The crazy thing about the 100-goal stat mentioned above between Letang and Coffey is that Coffey scored his 100 goals with the Penguins in less than five full seasons. He was, quite simply, a monster with the puck and a perfect fit for the way the Penguins played. Like the rest of the great defenders the team has had his run here was short, eventually being traded during the 1991-92 season in the three-team deal that brought Rick Tocchet to Pittsburgh, which would turn out to be another Stanley Cup type of move.
Larry Murphy was another massive acquisition by the team right before they went on their back-to-back Stanley Cup runs. During the five-year between 1987 and 1992 the Penguins acquired five future Hall of Famers from outside the organization (Paul Coffey, Joey Mullen, Bryan Trottier, Ron Francis, and Larry Murphy — not to mention the two that entered the organization through the draft in Jaromir Jagr and Mark Recchi). Murphy mixed point-per-game offense with one of the sharpest minds in the league to form a complete package of a defenseman that would finish in the top-five in Norris Trophy voting three times in five years with the team.
Then there is Kris Letang.
Like I said above, Letang at his best is a rare, unique talent. Elite skating, great offensive talents, sometimes a fierce edge to his play, and a noteworthy player for his contributions to three Stanley Cup winning teams (I know he did not play in the playoffs for the third Stanley Cup winning team, but if Marc-Andre Fleury gets to be referred to as a three-time Stanley Cup winner, so does Kris Letang), including some massive, massive goals during those runs. During the 2009 Final against Detroit he scored a huge power play goal to tie Game 3 of that series when the Penguins were trailing by two games and in danger of falling into what would have surely been an insurmountable 3-0 series deficit. He was arguably the best player in the playoffs during the 2015-16 run and ended up scoring the Stanley Cup-clinching goal to finish off an incredibly dominant shift.
Letang has something the other three did not have in Pittsburgh — longevity. While the others only spent, at most, parts of five seasons here.
Overall, Letang has been great during his time in Pittsburgh and is absolutely deserving as being remembered as one of the franchise’s all-time greats for what he’s contributed and what he’s accomplished. When you take into account longevity and everything he — and the team — has accomplished, you could make an argument for him being the best defenseman the team has ever had.
But if you just look at peak performance and who was the best during their time with the Penguins, regardless of how long it was, I think I would comfortably put him in my top-three ... just behind Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy, but ahead of the likes of Randy Carlyle, Sergei Gonchar, Ulf Samuelsson, and so on and so on down the list.
The larger point here is to appreciate what Letang has done in Pittsburgh — because it has been special, and when you consider they got him in the same draft class as Sidney Crosby it has to be considered one of the greatest single draft classes in franchise history. Maybe NHL history.
So where do you put Letang on the hierarchy of Penguins’ all-time defensemen?
Where does Kris Letang rank among the Penguins all-time best defensemen?
This poll is closed
He’s overrated and I don’t like him