A couple of weeks ago I looked at Kris Letang’s place among the Penguins’ all-time greatest defensemen and how he has probably been the most underappreciated great player the team has had over the past decade. Or at any point in their existence. I have also argued for a while now that if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the backbone and cornerstones of the team during this era, then Letang has been the glue that keeps everything from falling apart.
As he goes, they tend to go. If there is one player they could never afford to lose, I have always believed that it was him.
But Adam, you stupid doofus, they actually won the Stanley Cup two years ago without him playing half of the season or any of the playoffs. How can can you possibly believe that, is a thing you might be asking right now. And yes, that is all very true.
But I think everyone that watched that team objectively, especially through the playoffs, would almost certainly have to agree that they were not as dominant as they were the year before with Letang, and that had it not been for some incredible goaltending in the first couple of rounds (not to mention a Sergei Bobrovsky meltdown) they may not have made it out of either one of them. I don’t want to say they were lucky to win, but they very easily could have not won. They were an infinitely better team with him in the lineup and playing at his best.
Which is why his return last season did not produce the results it was expected to, because he was clearly off his game and not the same player. The entire team felt it.
That brings us to this season, where through the first nine games Letang has played he has been as dominant and game-changing as he has been at any other point in his career, and has probably been the team’s best and most consistent player.
For as good as Evgeni Malkin has been, for as good as Sidney Crosby has been over the past week-and-a-half, for as good as Phil Kessel has been, Letang has been better than all of them. And given the role he plays and the minutes he logs, that makes his value almost immeasurable. But let’s try to measure it anyway.
The numbers are incredible.
Offensively, he is already up to 11 points in his first nine games and is helping to push the play with a 55 percent shot attempt share. He is playing 25 minutes per night, including more than two minutes per night on a team that has been one of the top penalty killing teams in the league.
You truly get a sense for how great he has been when he is not on the ice, where the Penguins’ shot attempt share drops down to only 45.5 percent, an appallingly bad number, and their goal differential goes from plus-eight (14-6) to just being ... even (19 goals for, 19 goals against).
Part of this is because Letang himself is — and has been — great.
Part of it is because the rest of the defense after him has been ... not great, and is full of players that are flawed in one way or another. Or multiple ways.
I don’t want to say Tuesday’s clunker of a loss was entirely due to Letang’s absence because they were probably due for a game like that, anyway, and there was also a lot of bad breaks that went against them. But they still had breakdowns all over the place. They gave up an odd-man rush on what seemed to be every other shift. While neither goalie had to face a ton of shots from the Islanders, the shots they did have to face were not giving them much of a chance.
Letang and Brian Dumoulin have been a stabilizing force on the blue line this season, and without them logging 23-25 minutes, you not only lose that, but someone else has to take on those minutes. And there isn’t another player on the team that is capable of stepping into that role and filling it.
That becomes a problem. When you combine his absence with Justin Schultz’s, then you really don’t have anyone on the blue line that is capable of leading the rush out of the zone, contributing offense, or being someone that can make a significant impact.
Throughout his career when the Penguins have been without Letang their performance as a team tends to drop more than it does when they are without one of their top two forwards (2016-17 being a notable outlier). When they have to play without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin they still have the other one to carry the offense.
When they have to play without Letang there is no one else to pick up that slack.
On the list of most valuable commodities an NHL team can possess a truly top-tier, No. 1 defenseman is right near the top of the list. At their best, they can play more than a third of the game and impact it in all phases (even strength, power play, special teams ... offensive zone, defense zone). The Penguins have one of the best in the business, and he still might be the most valuable asset on a team that has a couple of superstars up front. He is that good, and he is that important.
For the Penguins to get back to a championship level this season they desperately needed a bounce-back year from Letang.
So far, they are getting it.
They just have to hope he stays healthy and is able to continue providing it all season.