Kris Letang returned to practice just 10 days after suffering a stroke in December, but had to depart again less than a month later to spend time with his family after the death of his father, Claude Fouquet.
While facing those personal tragedies, Letang still anchored the Penguins for 64 games. He trailed only defense partner Brian Dumoulin and captain Sidney Crosby for the team lead in total ice time this season, despite missing 18 contests.
Although he played a crucial role in getting the Penguins within two points of the playoffs, Letang was never “able to get into a groove” in 2022-23, he told reporters after the Penguins’ season-ending 3-2 overtime loss to the Blue Jackets on Thursday.
“This year was really tough, especially on the personal side, so I was never really able to get into a groove or mentally be totally there, if I can say it like that,” Letang said. “I’m just going to get away and try to clear my head.”
In 64 games, the defenseman put up 41 points, scored three of the Penguins’ nine overtime goals, anchored the power play and skated almost 25 minutes per night.
As in most of the team’s postgame interviews following the end of the franchise’s first regular season without playoffs in 17 years, Letang’s tone was somber as he discussed what was missing from the Penguins’ this year: consistency.
Throughout the final month of the season, the Penguins only won consecutive games once in 16 outings.
“When you have your best performance on the ice, and you’re converting those games at like a 20 percent, or 25 percent rate, it’s not good enough,” Letang said. “You’ve got teams that, even if they don’t play a good game, they find ways to win, and I think most of the time we were trying to find ways to lose.”
He continued: “It’s just awful. You try to reflect on things that slipped through your hands. It’s not like we didn’t have our destiny in our hands. We found a way to lose games this year.”
When asked about Dumoulin, who is an unrestricted free agent following this season, Letang said he hoped the team will find a way to retain his defense partner in 2023-24. Dumoulin visibly struggled early in the campaign and became a focus of scrutiny in several of the late blown leads that marred the Penguins’ season.
“He’s the guy that I’m most comfortable to play with,” Letang said. “My best years in the league are spent beside him. He’s such a good partner to be paired with, and it’s not only that... in the room, he’s a guy that people want to gravitate around. I just hope that he’s with us next year, and I think he’s proven that he’s a tough defender in this league.”