Kris Letang returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup this week less than two weeks after suffering his second stroke in less than 10 years. That sentence on its own, without any additional context, is scary and wild enough on its own. The fact he has been able to return as quickly as he has is nothing short of amazing. And as somebody that is not a doctor, I am in no position to judge any of that. He has access to the best medical care, and if they think he can play safely, then so be it.
Adding to all of that is that Letang has not only returned to the lineup, I think there is an argument to be made that he has played his best hockey of the season in the three games since returning to the lineup.
Letang’s season was a bit up-and-down prior to exiting the lineup, and statistically had been one of the Penguins’ least effective defenders over the first month-and-a-half of the season. Some of that was attributed to playing alongside a struggling Brian Dumoulin, but neither player was above criticism. Letang was contributing to quite a bit of that as well.
But his season is slowly starting to turn around, and the past three games have been some of his most encouraging play to date. At least statistically speaking,
Going into Sunday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Letang had logged 22, 27, and 24 minutes, scored his second goal of the season (a shorthanded goal) against the Florida Panthers, and played big minutes for the Penguins as they continued to shut down some of the league’s best offenses.
He also seems to have found a capable new partner in Marcus Pettersson.
Pettersson’s season has been one of the biggest positive surprises all season, and the decision to not dump his contract is looking like a smart one for the Penguins.
But since Letang returned to the lineup just look at what that pairing has done over the past three game:
Time On Ice: 40 minutes
Shot Attempts: 42 for, 34 against (56 percent share)
Scoring Chances: 21 for, 13 against (61.7 percent share)
High-Danger Scoring Chances: 11 for, 6 against (64.7 percent share)
Expected Goals: 2.68 for, 1.05 against (61.7 percent share)
Goals Scored: 2 for, 1 against (66.7 percent share)
That duo has been one of the Penguins’ most used duos this season, but the past few games have been their best play of the season to date.
Given the circumstances of the way Letang returned to the lineup, as well as the opposition they have played against, that is some impressive work.
They not only went against some of the best offenses in the league, Letang and Pettersson drew a lot of matchups against Tage Thompson, the Jason Robertson line, as well as Aleksander Barkov in those games. Other than an early goal by the Robertson line in the Dallas game, they shut all of them down.
I love the idea of Letang and Pettersson as a defense pairing because Pettersson is the type of defender that seems to complement Letang the best.
Capable enough defensively, the mobility to not hold things back, and even though he is not a huge point-producer he has enough skill to move the puck and keep plays moving. (Those are also the same reasons I am intrigued by the possibility of Pierre-Olivier Joseph as a potential defense partner as well). If you look back through his career, his numbers have always been remarkably better with players like that as opposed to the Rob Scuderi’s and Brooks Orpik’s of the league that were there to help “cover” for him. He does not need somebody to cover for him, he needs somebody that can keep up with him and help match his skill level.
Dumoulin was able to do that for several years, but with the way his play has declined he has started to drift into that Scuderi-Orpik territory. They needed a new pairing to lead the defense.
Letang was the one free agent that should have been a must-have priority this past offseason, and getting him back on such a cap-friendly deal was a huge win. Even at his age he was still playing at a ridiculously high level and given his fitness and the way he takes care of himself seemed to be a lock to have at least a few more top-tier years ahead of him. That is what made his start to the season so concerning. Did he suddenly lose it? Was father time catching up to him? Or just a slow start or a slump at the start of the season when everybody would notice it?
Based on the past three games there is a lot of reason to believe that he still has it and is starting to turn his season around and get back on track. That makes an already good Penguins team even better, and perhaps even a serious Stanley Cup contender with the way they are playing.