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2020-21 Season in Review: Kris Letang

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Looking back on the year that was for the Penguins’ number one defenseman

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Vitals

Player: Kris Letang
Born: April 24, 1987 (34 years old)
Height: 6’ 0”
Weight: 201 pounds
Hometown: Montreal, Quebec
Shoots: Right
Draft: 2005, Penguins Pittsburgh, 3rd round, 62nd overall
2020-21 Statistics: 55 games played — 7 goals, 38 assists, 45 points

Contract Status: Letang’s max length contract of eight years and a $7.25 million annual cap hit (signed way back in summer 2013) expires after the 2021-22 season, making him an impending free agent next summer if not extended again prior to that point.

History

2019-20 Pensburgh Season in Review (54% B Grade, 31% A)
2018-19 Pensburgh Season in Review (45% B, 44% A)
2017-18 Pensburgh Season in Review (40% B, 31% C)
2016-17 Pensburgh Season in Review

Playoffs

Letang was one of the better players for Pittsburgh in the playoffs, putting up six points (1G+5A) in their six playoff games while playing an average of 28:42 per game. That was inflated by overtime games, but again shows what a major piece of the puzzle that he is for the team. Letang was on ice for 8 GA at 5v5 in the playoffs. But with just an xGA of 4.69 to suggest that perhaps no player on the team was let down by more by goaltending than Letang while on the ice.

Regular Season Monthly Splits

via Yahoo!

—From February on, Letang got on track and was a force scoring 42 points in the last 46 games of his season.

Story of the Season

You can make a pretty strong case that as Kris Letang goes, so to is how the Pittsburgh Penguins will go. Letang started the season slow and on the wrong end of plays. Frankly, he looked like an older player who didn’t have a normal training camp, much like other key Pens’ players. That was for good reason since that is what happened. Letang doesn’t struggle quietly — he often is a player that will stand out negatively with mistakes in losses, but contribute heavily to the offense in wins.

As injuries ravaged the Pens’ defense in January/February, Letang was there as the key player to not miss much time (one injury scare cost him one game but was quickly recovered from). And then Letang found his form and so too did the Pens, who roared back in a successful March and April and eventually ended up at the top of the East Division when all the dust settled.

Regular season 5v5 advanced stats

Data via Natural Stat Trick. Ranking is out of 8 defensemen on the team who qualified by playing a minimum of 150 minutes.

Corsi For%: 49.8% (7th)
Goals For%: 57.95% (4th)
xGF%: 48.0% (6th)
Scoring Chance %: 50.6% (6th)
High Danger Scoring Chance%: 45.3% (7th)
5v5 on-ice shooting%: 9.9% (3rd)
On-ice save%: .929% (5th)
Goals/60: .29 (t-3rd)
Assist/60: .93 (2nd)
Points/60: 1.22 (2nd)

—Without Brian Dumoulin for a chunk of the season (as well as several other key players at different points), Letang had to hold the fort and function as a bedrock top-pair defenseman to tread water in the toughest minutes and free up others to play lower competition.

—As we’ll see in the charts below, it was a difficult year by the advanced metrics for No. 58.

Charts n’at

WAR didn’t love Letang’s season, as some of the Corsi/HD chances data above hints towards.

Is that a sign of a 33-year old player finally coming back down to earth and starting to struggle playing 23-27 minutes per game, literally every game? It will be worth watching for the Pens, though I’m inclined to be more concerned about the red line (defense impact) staying low and probably seeing the offense as a likely candidate to rebound in 2021-22.

(Also, Letang’s 2017-18, immediately following neck surgery, is probably one of the lowkey best forgotten performances by a player in recent memory, given age and circumstance)

Here’s why the WAR was low — the Penguins were a “wide open” team with Letang on the ice, willing to trade chances at both ends.

But for as much attention as Letang’s 5v5 defense (somewhat deserving) receives, the funny thing is he’s developed into a key PK’er and a very reliable one to drive good results (chart on left Pens’ PK with Letang, on right the PK without him).

The Dumoulin-Letang pairing reigned supreme, as usual. Always fun to see players like Mike Matheson and John Marino bleed into the chart as well, with the Pens staggering shifts on the fly to get Letang more minutes and on the ice for extra bits of time.

The Penguins are going to remain a good team and continue to have really good seasons as long as the Crosby/Letang-driven first line is producing 3ish goals for per 60 (right chart) as they did this season.

The longevity of Letang’s career really stands out below. By this metric, next season will be year 13 in the NHL of Letang playing as a 1st pair defenseman. That’s really, really impressive to last so long and log all of those minutes for so many years. There are not too many players in NHL history who have been workhorses and maintained a strong level of play for a playoff team every year like Letang has.

Another point illustrated is that Letang has really had a lot of durability in the second chapter of his career from age-27 on, compared to a very checkered and unfortunate injury history to begin his career. Players and especially defensemen don’t tend to miss less time as they age, but as a testament to Letang’s conditioning and physical shape he has been able to buck that trend so far.

Highlights

Bottom line

Kris Letang is a dynamic player who has an extraordinary ability to eat minutes and is a huge part of why the Penguins won the division acting as a key support player for Sidney Crosby. Letang’s offensive instincts and abilities helped the Pens’ on their power play and carried a huge burden this season. His defensive-driving was down this year and is an area of concern going into his age-34 season.

Ideal 2021-22

The ideal situation would be that Letang continues his run of good health (Letang has played 260 out of 289 possible regular season games since returning from neck surgery in 2017), continues to play 23-25 minutes per game giving the Pens’ dominance against top competition. He will again rack up the points and signs an extension on a friendly enough term and compensation for himself and the team as he heads into the latter portion of his career.

Question to ponder

Now going into his age-34 season, how much longer is Kris Letang going to be a clear #1 defenseman, and top 5-10ish defender in the league? Offensively he has been as prolific as ever at generating goals and assists, but are the cracks showing in his defensive game a sure sign of things to come? And if so, what does that mean for the team’s future in 2022 and beyond? Will that include the defender who now owns all the major franchise career marks among blueliners?

Poll

What grade do you give Kris Letang’s 2020-21 season?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    A
    (222 votes)
  • 43%
    B
    (185 votes)
  • 4%
    C
    (20 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    F
    (2 votes)
430 votes total Vote Now