Player: Kris Letang
Born: April 24, 1987
Birthplace: Montreal, Quebec
Weight: 201 pounds
Contract: Letang has a salary cap hit of $7.25 million per season through the end of the 2021-22 season.
Regular Season History
When talking about the best defensemen to ever play for the Pittsburgh Penguins there are two names at the very top of the list — Paul Coffey and Kris Letang.
Coffey earns the distinction of being the best defensemen to ever wear a Penguins uniform because, well, he’s Paul Coffey and his acquisition was the tipping point that sent the organization from being a perennial laughing stock (even after selecting Mario Lemieux with the No. 1 overall pick in 1984) to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But for his good as his time was he still only spent four years with the team, and because of that, if you were to discuss “best defensemen in Penguins history” where you take into account production, ability, impact, longevity the answer has to be Letang.
He is the franchise’s all-time leader among defensemen in games played, goals, even-strength goals, assists, total points, shots on goal, and game-winning goals, while he is second in power play goals (just three behind Coffey) while his career plus-61 rating is the third-best behind only Larry Murphy and Ulf Samuelsson.
After a disappointing 2017-18 season where Letang was never fully healthy and never really on top of his game, he bounced back in 2018-19 with what was one of his best seasons in the NHL that should have been worthy of some Norris Trophy discussion.
He has finished in the top-10 in Norris Trophy voting five times in his career and it would be stunning if this season was not the sixth. He has also been in the top-six three times, the top-four two times, and a Finalist one time.
For as great as Letang’s regular season performance was the playoffs were the polar opposite. He struggled, as did pretty much everyone else on thee team in the Round 1 series against the New York Islanders. His 2018-19 postseason was defined by a handful of mistakes, including that Game 1 turnover in overtime that helped lead to the Islanders’ game-winning goal. That resulted in Letang taking a ton of heat for the way he plays, as well as his response to the questions about his play and willingness to change his style of play. While this year was a difficult postseason, he is still a three-time Stanley Cup champion and while Letang critics are quick to point out that they won one of those Stanley Cups with him injured, it doesn’t as often get mentioned that they won two with him. Had it not been for him they may not have won those two, either. He scored some massive goals during the 2008-09 Stanley Cup run and was arguably the team’s most important player during the 2015-16 Stanley Cup run.
Game of the season
February 11, 2019 — In a game at Philadelphia against the Flyers, Letang played 31:31 (his third highest ice-time of the season), scored a goal, recorded an assist, and finished as a plus-3 in a 4-1 win.
Charts (via hockeyviz)
This is a number one defenseman in a nutshell. He plays 26 minutes a night, producing above first-pair offense, and tilts the ice dramatically in his team’s favor while he’s out there.
The Brian Dumoulin - Kris Letang pairing was together for most of the season, with brief stretches of Letang playing with Jack Johnson, Marcus Pettersson and Olli Maatta at the end of the season (while Dumoulin was out injured). Still, the coaching staff didn’t much mess with the good thing that Dumoulin-Letang most certainly was all season long.
As a rule, the Pens play better with Letang on the ice, and performances suffer while he’s on the bench. That’s largely reflected above, with Letang consistently on the “good” side (blue) despite who was on the ice, and most of the red squares (meaning player without Letang) are located near bad. Most of the black squares (players while Letang was on the ice) are closer to the top right good area.
This is what it is all about. Letang is a dominant offensive defenseman and the Penguins generally were just that while he was on the ice.
This pass by Letang is the reason Aston-Reese scores that goal. Look at this thing. Absolutely unreal. Letang is feeling it right now. pic.twitter.com/J13P2Fn0eg— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) November 28, 2018
Are you kidding me with that Kris Letang breakout pass that led to the Brassard goal? pic.twitter.com/UJ1k2bpYqR— Jim (@SportsingJim) December 28, 2018
Letang ties his career-high for goals in a season and gets the lead for the good guys late in the 3rd period. We like what we see! pic.twitter.com/UWv3q3BxCv— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 20, 2019
The ideal situation for Letang this season is that he remains in Pittsburgh as a member of the Penguins, stays healthy enough to play in at least 75 games, and plays at the exact same level he did during the 2018-19 season then continues that through the playoffs.
Worst Case 2019-20
There are a couple of worst-case scenarios here. One is that the Penguins’ front office overreacts this summer and trades him, leaving a huge dent in the Penguins’ blue line. The other is that he returns and suffers through an injury-plagued season that limits his effectiveness, or that he loses a step and begins a decline. Eventually that will happen, and given his style of play I am not sure how pretty the decline phase of his career will be. He makes his living on skating and all-worth athleticism. Once that disappears, or starts to disappear, it is going to take away a lot of what he does.
You might see him start to slow down a little but, just because he is another year older and has been through a hell of a career that has seen him play a ton of big minutes that are not easy minutes while also fighting through an extensive list of physical ailments. It is only natural now that he is into his 30s that it starts to catch up to him a little bit. But we are not at the point where his career falls off a cliff. He is still going to be an elite defensemen when he is healthy and a significant piece of the Penguins’ core.
He is always going to be a focal point for criticism because every No. 1 defender is a focal point for criticism. They play the most minutes, they play against the other team’s best players, they touch the puck the most. When a player plays in that situation sometimes they will make mistakes, sometimes they will get beat, sometimes they will be on the ice for goals against. They will also do a lot more positive to outweigh that. Letang has always done that. He will continue to do that this season and probably for a few more. Trading him should not be an option because you are never going to find a suitable replacement and it would only further weaken an already thin defense that lacks skaters, playmakers, and mobility.
Grade Kris Letang’s 2018-19 Season Performance
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