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The oddity of grilling good players like Kris Letang when things go bad for the Penguins

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It’s strange, but good players end up taking the brunt of criticism when things go wrong

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

One of the smartest people I’ve ever known once asked me probably the most laughable question I’ve ever heard. And I’ve run a major hockey blog for 10 years, so that’s saying something.

Anyways, we were at a baseball game - a team-building initiative from a manager who had very, very little interpersonal skills, but still was a brilliant person. Ivy league, then MBA, the whole nine yards, just not a people person or well rounded outside of business . And definitely someone who knew nothing about sports, with brainpower (probably wisely) devoted to more productive endeavors.

So by the fourth inning, with a 0-0 score on the board I got asked a genuine question of “so, I don’t get it...If these guys are all professionals, why can’t they get a hit every time they’re at bat? They’re the best at it, so how come the failure rate is so high?”

It was a serious question, and probably as any sports nut would, my instant reaction was a laugh and to point out that the pitchers and fielders get paid too and it’s very difficult to get actually get a base hit.

In a lot of ways I feel the same reaction when people talk about Kris Letang online.

Because, in a lot of cases, when one feels the need to share an opinion about Kris Letang, it’s not typically about a goal that happens when he does this:

Generally speaking, the talk about Kris Letang pinching on a goal that happens ends up being on the bad side when he makes an error like this:

And, I mean, I get it. Safety first. Obviously it’s common sense that a player has to do more good than bad. (Insert reminder here Letang was on ice for 74 5-on-5 Goals For to just 47 5-on-5 goals against in the regular season, to lead all Pens’ defensemen with a 61.6% GF% and be third in entire league there too, minimum 900 minutes).

Still, from fans and media alike, does Kris Letang need to change his game? Is that really a driving issue for the Penguins?

He was asked that last week directly in year-end press scrum, and responded (minus the laughter) pretty much as I did when asked why a MLB caliber baseball player can’t get a base hit in every single at bat. Uhh, come again with that question?

“I don’t want to say be more responsible with the puck, but maybe some of the decisions you made, the turnovers that happened in the Islanders series would you do anything different to play any different?”

Letang, predictably, was pretty defensive and snappy to this line of thought, which as presented was leading down a bad street anyways.

As an aside, why does the media feel emboldened to grill Letang (an actual great player who consistently gets great overall results) and doesn’t ask tough questions to bad players like Jack Johnson the same way to his face or to ask the coach why he faithfully trots out a player who gets consistently bad results?

Same thought applies to Phil Kessel getting asked an opening question minutes after Game 4 about if he thinks he will get traded coming off a point-per-game season where he was a contributing positive factor this year, much like he was in two Stanley Cup winning seasons? Are these the guys to reasonably hold their feet to the fire while giving a pass to lesser players who don’t have any positive contributions?

It makes sense when you need to maintain relationships and get a scoop of partial information about a lineup change for the playoffs, but it’s still not an honest way to approach the situation. But that’s a different matter for probably a different time.

Jonathan Bombulie touched on the give-and-take relationship between Letang’s good and bad in the Trib:

Criticism of Letang is valid.

Did his turnover cost the Penguins Game 1 against the Islanders in overtime? Yes. Did his ineffective handling of a loose-puck situation near the offensive blue line give the Islanders an important goal in Game 4? Absolutely.

But that criticism is also very anecdotal.

A data-driven look at the larger sample size of the entire season paints a fuller picture of the impact he makes.

When it comes to preventing goals, Letang’s presence didn’t make much of a difference for the Penguins this season. The team’s goals-against rate per 60 minutes at five on five was practically identical, right around 2.25, whether he was on the ice or not.

The team’s goals-for rate was a different story. When Letang was on the ice, it was 3.55. When he wasn’t, it plummeted to 2.29. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that when it comes to creating offense, Letang is the straw that stirs the drink for the Penguins.

It’s definitely fair to say Letang made critical mistakes that hurt the team in their playoff series, if not incomplete to brush aside the style of play that brought them to that point in the first place. So at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that Letang helps WAY more than he hurts the team, which makes picking at the mistakes look tough.

Read the above quotes and think of it in the context that Letang plays 24-30 minutes a game, literally every game and against the toughest competition. Yet he does not yield more goals against than anyone else, and the offense is significantly better with him on the ice. So what again is the pressing issue at play here?

Flush the recency bias of a bad play here or there — a ballplayer can’t get a hit on every at bat and a mobile, skilled defenseman isn’t going to bat 1.000 with his play either. But when you step back and way overall impacts there can be no doubt that Kris Letang brings far more good to the table than anything else. And if the Penguins consider anything other than bringing him back and allowing him to play the game the way he can (which only a handful of players in the entire world right now are capable of), it’s an absolute tragedy of roster idea that will negatively affect the team moving forward.