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Report: Kris Letang “expecting” to be traded...but he probably shouldn’t

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Are the Penguins trying the “Evgeni Malkin 2019 off-season tough love path” with Kris Letang in 2020? It sure seems like it..

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Two Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

Head back over to The Athletic for Rob Rossi’s latest article “Fearing a trade, Kris Letang is at a crossroads

It includes the jarring:

“Letang told several teammates he expected to be traded this offseason.”

But Rossi also walks it back a little:

But neither ownership nor management believes the Penguins will be better without Letang, who has two years remaining on his contract. And the return of Todd Reirden as assistant coach is the first part of the Penguins’ plan for Letang to “be that guy again,” a team source told The Athletic.

All of these things can be true!

Letang has decent reason to think he is going to be traded — his name popped up last week on Frank Seravelli (TSN)’s “trade bait” list. A list where over half the members from last summer did get traded.

Letang also knows the landscape in Pittsburgh. He saw Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta get shipped out last summer. He’s seen countless players come and go. He knows they’re not firing the coach, and they’re not trading Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, so what’s the biggest piece left? Him.

However, Letang probably shouldn’t be worried about a trade. As the article points out, it’s almost impossible to believe the Penguins will get better by trading Letang under his current situation and circumstances. He’s not a young player at 33 years, he has two years left on a fair deal but still a large one at $7.25 million for a player who isn’t an ironman. Letang also can disallow trades to 18 teams, per his contract. That said, he knows Kessel could block a trade to 23 teams, and that didn’t prevent the Pens from dealing him.

Still, Pittsburgh’s goal is to compete. As pointed out today in our timely Pensburgh player season review, Kris Letang had a solid season. He still finished 4th in the entire league at ice-time per game at 25:44, and was just a whisper off being second place (25:49).

If the Pens want to keep any illusions of their championship window open, the biggest item they need to do is NOT make a hasty trade to send away a star player for a less-than return. That’s easy logic and common sense.

So it points to the Pens maybe just testing the market and putting Letang’s out there to see what he might fetch, but still not planning on trading him, knowing that there’s no return that can be reasonably expected that will help improve the team. No harm, no foul.

In a way, what Rutherford and the Pens are doing to Letang this off-season feels a lot like what attitude they took with Malkin last summer. Rutherford let Malkin hang in the breeze for a bit, refusing to commit to the center coming back for this season in the media. But after the dust settled, Rutherford had coach Mike Sullivan take a meeting with Geno in his off-season home in Florida and the two got further on the same page and got a new understanding.

The result was that Malkin was motivated, came ready to dominate and pretty much did just that, scoring 74 points in 55 games in his age-33 season, leading the NHL in Points/60 at 5v5.

Is this tactic by Rutherford some bizarre motivation technique? Some sort of mind game to attempt to motivate a star player who has a fully guaranteed contract with trade protection, as well as a ton of money in the bank?

Rutherford frequently laments about players becoming complacent, and NHL teams don’t have a lot of weapons to combat this. Sure, the ultimate move would be to trade the player, but a team isn’t and shouldn’t trade players like Malkin and Letang. They’re too tough to come across in the first place to be trading away.

And a team doesn’t have a ton of leverage to bench or healthy scratch them either. The Spittin’ Chiclets podcast has relayed a story of early Malkin days when then-head coach Michel Therrien threatened Malkin with a healthy scratch and Malkin told Therrien through impromptu interpreter Sergei Gonchar if that was the case then he would just fly home to Russia immediately. Malkin, unsurprisingly, was never a scratch. Players have a ton of leverage, so if you can’t really bench or limit them, so what else is there?

Like the concept or not, the Pens’ stance on Malkin from last summer did get him to re-focus and prepare for a great season. Whether or not it was wise or necessary to do that is a different question, and certainly a very fair one. It really feels like Pens’ management is taking that same course with Kris Letang this off-season, and hoping that they can motivate him with a new but familiar assistant coach Todd Reirden to be the best he can be and refresh and re-energize himself, and by virtue, the entire team.

It doesn’t really make all that much sense, because Kris Letang is certainly what is not ailing the Pens, but hey, the never-ending fight to stave off complacency and attempt to bring out the best in the star players was a big focus Pittsburgh put on Malkin last summer, somewhat to mostly through the media. With Malkin “redeemed” and out of that spotlight, the attention in similar ways has shifted towards their best defenseman.