When this generation of Penguins hockey passes into memory and the key core of players who made it possible retire from the game, you can guarantee Sidney Crosby’s No. 87 and Evgeni Malkin’s No. 71 will be sent to the rafters of PPG Paints Arena. Their numbers will join the No. 66 of Mario Lemieux and the No. 21 of Michel Briere to be retired by the Penguins franchise. (Note: By the time 87 & 71 retire, Jaromir Jagr’s No. 68 could also be retired.)
While Crosby and Malkin have been the headliners, they have enjoyed a pretty strong supporting cast throughout the years. Guys like Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, and Phil Kessel have all played significant roles in this decade-plus run of success. As important as those players were in support of Crosby and Malkin, none may have been as important or impactful as defenseman Kris Letang.
Often a lightning rod for the fan base, Letang has been the anchor of the Penguins blue line for over a decade at this point and cemented himself as a franchise legend. None of the success the Penguins have achieved during this run would have been possible without Letang. It is time to seriously consider sending his No. 58 to the rafters following his retirement from the game of hockey.
From a statistical standpoint, Letang will go down as the most prolific defenseman in team history — at least from an offensive perspective. Letang holds the all-time record for goals, assists, and total points by a defenseman in franchise history. He has also played more games for the Penguins than any defenseman to ever don the black and gold.
Those numbers will only continue to grow, as Letang has three-plus seasons remaining on his current contract. By the time he plays his final game in Pittsburgh, Letang may very well set the bar at a near unreachable level for anyone who comes after him.
Of course it’s about much more than just the individual numbers when discussing Letang’s legacy. A three-time Stanley Cup champion, Letang played a vital role in the 2009 and 2016 Cup teams before being sidelined by a neck injury that prevented him from being on the ice for 2017 run. Many use the 2017 Cup as evidence the Penguins could win the whole thing without Letang, but let’s be honest, that duct tape blue line barely held it together and the possession numbers are there to prove it. Even without being on the ice in 2017, Letang was a major factor in helping his teammates off the ice any way he could.
Going back to the 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cup teams, Letang was a major reason why the Penguins raised the Cup both of those seasons. In 2009, Letang posted 13 points in 23 games, including this ever-important goal in Game 3 against the Washington Capitals.
That was quite literally a season-saving goal for the Penguins to win Game 3 and bring the series to 2-1. If they lose that game, they fall in a 3-0 and likely miss out on the Stanley Cup that season.
Fast forward to 2016, and Letang put up perhaps the best postseason performance of his career to help lead the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup. His 15 points, along with his absurd 28:53 of average time on ice a night, led all Penguins’ defenseman. He was simply a warrior for the Penguins. Turns out he also scored a pretty big goal in Game 6 the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks.
Everything leading up to that goal was vintage Letang. It was only fitting he was the one who finished the deal as well.
Everyone knows what happened the following year. As the Pens repeated as champions, Letang missed the second half of the season and the entire playoffs following neck surgery. His name was still engraved on the Stanley Cup alongside his teammates, and even though he could not be on the ice, his work off the ice during the run is well documented.
To further his case as a playoff performer, Letang leads all statistical categories for defenseman in Penguins history. Games played, goals, assists, and points all belong to No. 58, just like the regular season stats. Oh yeah, he also has the three Stanley Cups, another record for Penguins’ defensemen.
All in all, here is a quick overview of Letang’s career accomplishments as a Penguin. All of which he has plenty of time to add to:
- 3 Stanley Cups
- Norris Trophy Finalist
- Leader in games played, goals, assists, points by a Penguins’ defenseman
- Leader in playoff games played, goals, assists, points by a Penguins’ defenseman
- 2016 Stanley Cup game-winning goal
Making his NHL debut in 2006, it was clear Letang had the talent necessary to be a top-pairing defenseman in the future. Only a year later, he was recalled to the Penguins on a full-time basis and became the anchor on the blue line for the next decade. Though he has been plagued by inconsistency at times, he has proven an invaluable asset to the Penguins franchise.
When Letang was faced with the prospect of being traded, he promised management he would work to improve his game and he delivered in every way possible. After suffering two potentially career derailing injuries (stroke in 2014, neck injury in 2017), he rebounded and returned better than ever. Nothing could ever keep Kris Letang down for long, and the Penguins were always better off for it.
At some point in the not so distant future, we will be faced with the reality that the players who made this era of Penguins’ hockey possible will no longer be taking the ice. Father time always wins, and it will eventually come for Kris Letang as well.
When the time comes for Letang to hang up his skates, his impact on the Penguins’ franchise will never be forgotten, and he should be properly honored for his accomplishments with his No. 58 hanging from the rafters of PPG Paints Arena.