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Will 2021 be the year the Penguins finally manage Kris Letang’s workload?

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As usual, the intention is there, but waiting to see if it actually happens this time matters more

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Almost every preseason, seemingly in recent memories, there are certain storylines for the Penguins. One is that Evgeni Malkin is in great shape and looking to have a good season (or bounce-back from last season, if the narrative fits). Another is that the Pens will finally ease the burden of Kris Letang’s workload. General manager Jim Rutherford hit both of those buttons in an interview he did with the Post-Gazette. The Letang comments were very interesting:

“I think it’s more about playing him in the right number of minutes in the right situations,” Rutherford said. “It’s hard for a coach when you’re looking down your bench in important parts of the game to bypass Kris Letang. Then at the end of the night you look and you say, ‘He played 27 or 28 minutes.’ And that continues game, after game, after game.

“With Dumo coming back and healthy and being able to play with Tanger, we know Tanger will be ready to play. He takes good care of himself. He wants to win. I expect him to continue to play at a high level for a few more years.”

Outside of possibly goaltenders, Letang’s performance is one of the most widely picked at and analyzed of all the players on the team. Everyone has an opinion. Some don’t like his style, or get caught up on turnovers (and seemingly fail to register the Pens still do way, way better with Letang on the ice). Many others appreciate Letang’s impact and ability. The one area that can’t be questioned is his usage.

In an area that I really don’t think gets enough attention or recognition, Letang finished fourth last season with 25:44 total time on ice per game. He was only five seconds per game short of being in second place, and not far off from Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot who paced the league with an even 26:00 per game.

Playing 25:44 per game at age-33 like Letang was last season is quite the feat. As seasons past, the obvious point is that Pittsburgh can’t use their aging number one defenseman so heavily.

To the very fair and accurate point Rutherford makes, it’s easy to say in the offseason “yeah, we’d like to manage his usage a bit better” but in the heat of the moment in a game situation, the coach is still going to double shift a player who can drive these results (from the 2018-19 season):

With Letang on the bench, the Pens are essentially a league average or worse team in terms of generating shots and goals. With no. 58 on the ice, Pittsburgh is beyond elite at both.

@Jfreshhockey

Outlooks like this just explain what Rutherford said, when you have a player this good, it’s tough not to play him a lot, and then at the end of the game realize he logged 27 or 28 minutes on the night. (This happened in 16 out of Letang’s 61 games last season, by the way).

That link is pretty comical, and eye-opening to drive home just how important and integral of a piece of the team that Letang is. Pittsburgh had 44 instances in 2019-20 where a defenseman played 25+ minutes on the season.

Take a moment here to think of what the split is going to look like. Sure, we know it’s going to be heavy Letang, but here’s just how much the team relies and leans on him, as far as games with 25+ minutes last season were for defenders:

  • Marcus Pettersson: 1
  • Justin Schultz: 1
  • Jack Johnson: 1
  • Brian Dumoulin: 1
  • John Marino: 1
  • Kris Letang: 39

Not for nothing, Pittsburgh had exactly 39 games decided last season by either one or two goals. Letang did miss eight games to injury, but the correlation is clear: if it was a close game down the stretch and the Pens needed to protect a lead or push to get a goal to get back into the contest, it was going to be a really heavy night of action and leaning on Letang to play a ton.

How long will this continue? That’s an interesting question. Surely in 2020-21, Letang isn’t going to go from 25:44 per game to 21 or 22 minutes. Which, as the charts and graphs above show, is a wise decision. Letang is playing to a very high level where the team needs him out there as much as he can handle.

The last part, as always, is a big deal. How much can Letang handle as he advances deeper into his 30’s? How much will the Pens balance using their best player to get the elite performance they need to win games versus taking care and keeping him fresher and healthier down the stretch? These are questions that coach Mike Sullivan will be tasked with answering.

While Letang has a reputation of not being durable — and he certainly has picked up a long list of injuries and maladies in his career — the second act of his career has quietly been a smooth one (knock on wood). Since recovering from neck surgery for the start of the 2017-18 season, Letang has suited up for 225 games out of the 253 total games the Pens have played, including playoff games. Add on the rigors of a 25+ minute a night workload, and that is fairly impressive.

The other elephant in the room is that Letang has two years left on his contract, and was listed on TSN’s top trade targets this summer. Compared to Malkin and Sidney Crosby, there’s no doubt that the most vulnerable core, franchise piece to move on is likely to be Letang.

Yet, as the data above shows, the irony is that Letang is arguably the one piece the team can least afford to lose given his role and contributions and wisely wasn’t seriously shopped this summer. Given coaching decisions in-game, that was the only choice available.

Now, we’ll see if the further emergence of Marino will help the Pens reign back Letang a little and try to become a deeper team.