Kris Letang is headed to the NHL All-Star Game for the sixth time in his career. He followed the announcement that he and Tristan Jarry have been added to the 2020 game with an All-Star performance in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday. It was not only his best performance over the past week, but maybe one of his best individual performances of the entire 2019-20 season.
The elite skating we have come to know from him was on display. He was in control. He made that home run pass to Brandon Tanev to set up the eventual game-winning goal. He played 26 minutes and while the shot-metric numbers are not what we are used to from him, it was on a night where the entire Penguins team was a bit overwhelmed and had to hang on for a win.
It also came on the heels of what was probably his worst stretch of the season.
There was that overtime penalty against the San Jose Sharks, resulting in Brent Burns’ game-winning power play goal.
That ugly turnover in front of the net in Montreal that turned into a Canadiens goal.
The game against Florida was just a tough one from start to finish.
To be blunt, it was not a good week, He struggled, and he needed a bounceback game on Tuesday to maybe get things back in the right direction.
As tends to be the case when Letang has a bad game or a stretch of bad games, the critics were out in force. In this instance, it was certainly justified. But there’s a fine line between “pointing out a slump and acknowledging it for what it is,” and “throwing out the entire player and disregarding everything he does.”
That line not only tends to get crossed sometimes, but launched over with a catapult. Every player in the NHL is prone to the occasional slump, or bad stretch, or mistake. It seems as soon as Letang hits one there’s a segment of the Pittsburgh crowd that is just waiting for an opportunity to scream about something.
He is a forward!
He has always been overrated and overpaid!
They won a Stanley Cup without him!
Brian Dumoulin covers for him!
On some level, I do get it. Letang’s mistakes tend to be more of the “what the hell is this shit?” kind of mistake that you don’t need to be an X’s and O’s expert to see. Sometimes he gets beat, sometimes he gets caught, sometimes he tries to make a low percentage pass that is likely to fail as soon as it leaves his stick. Those types of mistakes tend to come in bunches for him. Almost as if he gets in a rut and then tries to play his way out of it by going into superman mode and things just start to snowball. When that happens, it makes him an easy focal point for criticism. Those stretches are not anywhere near as common as they are made out to be. For his entire career the positives have always far outweighed the negatives and there is no shortage of objective information to prove it. That is still true this season, even with this recent slump.
You also do not need to look far to see when this recent slump started.
It is when they put him next to Jack Johnson.
Now before you roll your eyes and say “oh god here we go again...” this is not meant to be another round of piling on J-squared. Obviously Johnson is not to blame for some of the mistakes Letang has made lately (the fumbled pass in Montreal; the penalty in overtime against the Sharks) and you would have to be out of your mind to try and justify it that way. I will also still maintain that Johnson on his own has been better this season in the defensive zone and has been fine in a third-pairing role.
The problem is not necessarily Johnson himself.
The problem is the TYPE of player that Johnson is.
Letang has never, at any point in his career, played well next to slower partners with limited puck skills.
For years the Penguins — and everyone that follows them — had this galaxy brain idea that they needed to pair Letang with a “safer,” more responsible player to cover for mistakes. A defensive-defenseman. A rugged, shutdown, stay-at-home guy that could make the responsible plays while Letang went all over.
It is why they stuck Brooks Oprik next to him for so many years early on. It is the entire reason Ray Shero backed a dump truck full of money up to Rob Scuderi’s house in free agency that one summer.
Almost every time they tried it, it turned out to be a spectacular failure. It is still the case today.
Letang has always been at his best and performed at his peak level when he has a player next to him that can keep up with him and make their own plays with the puck.
This is why he misses Dumoulin right now.
The Letang-Dumoulin pairing is not great because Dumoulin “covers” for him, or hides his mistakes, or because he is the responsible one on the pairing (though, Dumoulin IS quite responsible).
It is not even necessarily because Dumoulin is an outstanding defensive player (he is that, too).
Dumoulin does not make Letang. Letang does not make Dumoulin.
It works because Dumoulin is a responsible, good defensive player and complements Letang’s playing style.
He is not a pylon on the ice. No one will ever confuse him with Letang or peak Erik Karlsson, but he is a very good skater. And while he may never be a huge point producer, he can make simple plays with the puck and move it up the ice. It’s not just “chip it off the glass and pray” when he has the puck on his stick in the defensive zone. If there is a play to be made, he can make it. Sometime he can make a play out of nothing. This isn’t meant to be a knock at Johnson, but you can not count on that sort of thing from a slow-footed, 32-year-old Jack Johnson.
If you look back over Letang’s career, he has always posted his best numbers and played his best hockey next to players like that. Dumoulin. Paul Martin. Early career Olli Maatta before the injuries consumed him.
Let us look at some numbers here.
Here are Kris Letang’s 5-on-5 shot attempt and goals for shares with various partners over his career.
These are two very basic numbers: Did the Penguins attempt more shots and score more goals with these pairings? These are not overly analytical things here. They are simply two very fundamental parts of hockey and key factors in winning games.
The first set is simply sorted by Goals For percentage. Look at the partners with the most success. Look at the type of players they are. Then look at the partners at the bottom. Look at the type of players they are.
When paired with Paul Martin, the early career/pre-injury Olli Maatta, and Brian Dumoulin (all VERY similar players with very similar skillsets) the numbers are dominant.
Here are the same pairings, this time sorted by shot attempt share.
There is a very clear line in the sand here and a dramatic difference in where the puck is going. The line is right between the two phases of Olli Maatta. That is a significant gap.
The Daley and Niskanen goal numbers are a little surprising given how dominant their possession numbers were together, but I think there is an element of bad luck/small sample size data going on there.
It also needs to be pointed out that Paul Martin was DAMN good and it is unfortunate he never got to play on a Stanley Cup winning team in Pittsburgh to earn the rightful place in Penguins’ fans memories that he deserves.
The main lesson here is you simply can not tie Letang down to an anchor that can not complement his playing style. It not only holds back the whole system, but I also think that is when Letang gets into trouble by trying to do too much. This is purely speculation/eye-test on my part, but when you put him with the Orpiks, Scuderis, and Johnsons of the league it is almost as if he takes on too much responsibility and tries to do everything himself because it is not going to happen when the puck goes to the other side of the ice. That is when chaos happens, and I am not sure how you reel that in.
So what is the solution for right now as long as Dumoulin is out? They tried Letang with John Marino and that presented its own set of problems because it forced Letang to play on his offside and that did not go all that well, either.
Given the types of players that Letang has had success with, I am curious as to what an extended look with Marcus Pettersson might look like. Pettersson has the mobility and puck skills that have complemented Letang well throughout his career, it gives them the lefty-rigthy pairing that is so important to them, and it would allow Johnson to play a more sheltered role (where he succeeded earlier this seaon) and not have to play against the top-players that Letang’s pairing will inevitably get.
Letang and Pettersson have only played 108 minutes next to each other the past two seasons, but their numbers together (in an admittedly very small sample size) are right in line with what Letang has done next to Dumoulin and Martin (54 percent shot attempt share; 70 percent goals for).
Maybe it is something to consider, but given how hesitant the Penguins have been to using it, I would not expect to see it.
In the end, Letang had a bad week with some bad mistakes. Sometimes that will happen, especially when he is partnered with a certain type of defender. He is still an impactful player that is a key part of the Penguins’ lineup. Let us not lose sight of that fact.