CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — It sure seemed as though Kris Letang had heard the flak, the criticism of his inconsistent play through the season, through the playoffs, and especially in a critical Game 5 loss to Washington in the second round.
When asked about his future with the Penguins, the defenseman chafed some Wednesday.
“Is that your question?” Letang asked a reporter. “Am I supposed to be in control of that? I … I mean … I sacrifice everything for this team. My only goal is to spend the rest of my career here. That’s all I can say.”
Letang, 31, was one of several players who met with reporters one last time for the 2017-18 season as players cleaned out their lockers at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and prepared to scatter for the summer. Letang has been a cornerstone of the team for years as a skilled two-way defenseman. He had 51 points during the season, the third-most of his career, and another 11 points in 12 games in the postseason.
But there was that Game 5 against the Capitals on Saturday night, a 6-3 loss during which Letang failed to cover his man, Washington’s Jakub Vrana, and Vrana scored the winning goal.
Earlier in the third period, Letang’s ill-advised decision helped lead to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tying goal. The Penguins blew a third-period lead that game and then lost in Game 6 to end their chance at a third straight Stanley Cup.
If Letang’s third period in Game 5 eats at you, know that it eats at him more, based on his answer when asked to evaluate his playoff performance.
“The only one I have in my mind right now is Game 5,” he said. “I made a mistake, and it cost us the game.
“I had good moments against Philly, an intense series. I had good moments, too, against Washington. But in my mind right now I just see this game as a problem. It stings right now. It’s still in my mind. It’s going to take a couple days, a couple weeks, and I’m going to try to forget about everything, forget about hockey, just think about my family and rest.”
This will be an interesting offseason for Letang. That’s partly because he will be able to catch up physically. A bull in the weight room, he was severely limited last summer after missing the full Cup run following disc surgery on his neck. And it’s partly because there is some speculation that the Penguins might be ready to move on from Letang.
General manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged he planned to make some changes during the offseason, although he has not developed a plan yet and declined to talk about any players or any areas where change is needed.
There seems to be a sentiment to give Letang something of a pass for his performance this season after the surgery.
Sidney Crosby, team captain and a longtime fellow core player, staunchly defended Letang, saying his season after the surgery and rehab was “pretty incredible.”
Crosby also dismissed any grousing about Letang, and did so passionately.
“I wasn’t aware of the criticism, to be honest,” Crosby said. “We have tons of trust in everybody, especially him given what he’s done, what he’s proven. I can just tell you from a teammate (standpoint) there’s no doubt in my mind, no matter what the situation or how big the game is, regardless of what happened the game before, there’s no doubt in my mind that you can depend on and rely on him.
“I don’t know what else to say. I know that everyone has good games and bad games, but I think as a teammate you couldn’t have a more dependable, reliable guy that competes the way he does. He might have had a tough Game 5, but he ends up scoring the goal that ties the game to make it 1-1 (in Game 6). It’s easy to have all those things magnified in the course of the playoffs. When you lose, that just comes with it, but he’s proven for a long time he’s a big part of our team.”
Crosby is intensely loyal, but it’s not really in his nature to let friendship with a teammate cloud his judgment of that player. Still, for some balance consider that coach Mike Sullivan also launched into a testimonial.
“I had an inclination that it was going to be a difficult challenge for him or a difficult process for him to overcome (his surgery and rehab),” Sullivan said. “Because of that, he’s had some ups and downs. He had some stages in the year when he was really good for us and he had some stages where he wasn’t at his best. It was more just his consistency of play. ‘Tanger’ and I had a discussion about this (Wednesday) morning. But by no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player.
“He’s an elite defenseman, and he still is.”
What if other teams agree? Could there be a trade offer this summer? It’s hard to say. Letang has a modified no-trade clause in a contract that carries a $7.25 million salary cap hit through 2021-22 — four more seasons.
It could be that the Penguins are convinced Letang will have a bounce-back season after a full, normal summer.
Letang, who has been through several medical issues, including a stroke and a handful of concussions, didn’t think that would be an issue. He thought he would be back to normal more quickly after the surgery.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I thought I was going to be fine. I thought I was going to get over the hump in the first few weeks of the season, but it didn’t happen that way. It took a little bit more time. But at the end of the day, it is what it is. I had to be better.”