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PHN Extra: Kris Letang’s Future With the Penguins

What lies ahead for the dynamic defensman? Will he rediscover the form that made him one of the best defensemen in the NHL… and will it be with the Penguins?

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Kris Letang: Photo By Michael Miller [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang did not have an easy 2017-18 season and it only got tougher in the playoffs. He missed half of last season and his summer training because of a neck injury and surgery to repair it, by Letang’s admission this season he had “one good game, one bad game,” and often within games his play varied from shift to shift.

Letang, 31, did not use excuses. Far more than any other season, Letang faced the media and spoke with candor.

“I sacrifice everything for this team. My only goal is to spend the rest of my career here. That’s all I can say,” said Letang last week when asked about his future.

Through the course of the season, Pittsburgh Hockey Now was presented information which opens the possibility of change. In December, PHN learned the Penguins did indeed take calls on Letang and he was available. Though it is important to denote the distinction between taking calls on a player and making calls, the Penguins did listen.

When the news became public, Penguins sources with direct knowledge told Pittsburgh Hockey Now a deal was “unlikely.”

“Unlikely “is a far cry from “no way.”

Through the course of the season, Pittsburgh Hockey Now also learned of frustration from coaches and Letang’s sensitivity to the struggle kept some less experienced teammates at a distance. To be clear, Pittsburgh Hockey Now is not reporting there was internal strife.

So, the baseline facts are teams are interested in Letang, coaches were frustrated, the player was frustrated, and that affected his relationship with some teammates. Letang’s contract runs for four more years at an annual cap hit of $7.25 million.

The Future

Letang’s future with the Penguins is not set in stone. Brutally honest and perhaps bruising conversations lie ahead with answers which are unclear. Can Letang regain his 2016 form?  Should he even try or should he further simplify his play in a grand concession to Father Time and the effects of injury?

No one has those answers.

However, 31-year-old defenders with as many hard miles don’t have career resurgences. Look no further than Chicago with Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. At 34 and 33 years old, the pair has fallen from their play of just a few years ago.

Letang’s best game of the playoffs was perhaps Game 4 against the Washington Capitals. He was quiet, his pinches were conservative, and the Penguins won.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

Some of his worst moments came as both the Round 1 and Round 2 series moved towards elimination. Bad penalties and missed assignments in Game 6, Round 1 against the Philadephia Flyers were nearly catastrophic. Gaffes in Games 5 and 6 against the Capitals sealed the Penguins fate.

At this point, there is no sense hiding from this writer’s tweet following the Penguins Game 6 loss to the Capitals. There is a real possibility Letang will not be a Penguin next season or finish next season with the Penguins. The Penguins will have conversations about that regardless of fan feeling or blogosphere mocking.

You’ve probably noticed Letang’s former teammate Marc-Andre Fleury‘s resurgence and happiness in Las Vegas. Fleury was given a clean slate. And boy, has he made the most of it.

Could, would, should Letang get the same opportunity?

Could the Penguins be better off?

Million Dollar Question

And that is the big question: Could the Penguins be better if they moved Letang. For all of the consternation, love, and anger surrounding the player, the Penguins will make a choice based on their best interests, not the player’s desire to remain.

Gone are the country club days in which friends of Mario came and went at will. Gone are the days when upper management intervened based on fan popularity (Yes, PHN knows of one major deal several years ago which was scuttled above the GM’s office because of management’s directive to keep a popular player).

The free agent market is not flush with defensemen. Capitals blueliner John Carlson headlines an otherwise paltry list which includes Mike Green, Jack Johnson, and Calvin de Haan. The weak market both heightens Letang’s value on the trade market but hampers the Penguins ability to replace him.

The Penguins also do not have defenseman prospects who are close to the NHL.

Analysis

Letang’s future as a Penguin will hinge as much on the external market as much as the internal decisions. Just how frustrated were coaches? And what would another team offer?

Justin Schultz is now the Penguins top power play quarterback. Schultz also continues to improve in the defensive zone greatly. But asking Schultz to handle the opponents top line every night over the course of the season might be asking too much. Then again, Matt Niskanen became part of the Capitals shutdown pairing against Sidney Crosby.

So, perhaps Schultz becoming a top pairing defenseman, for the long term, isn’t far fetched. PHN was told by numerous people around the organization that coaches really liked Schultz’ work. Such a move would allow the Penguins to deepen their blue line rather than try to replace the potentially high-end Letang.

All of those playoff games, all of those 25 minute nights take a toll. An enormous toll.

Again, see Keith and Seabrook.

The probability that Letang returns to 2016 form is less than the likelihood that we’ve seen the new Letang. A human body can only sustain so much. Letang had neared that threshold before serious neck injury. Not many players would have rebounded as well to a stroke, which Letang suffered in 2014. To be great again, Letang will need to become more consistent and, more importantly, accept if he cannot be the dynamic defender he was two years ago. First, he must answer that question for himself. Then adjust accordingly.

His skating ability is still well above NHL standards, which gives him a fighting chance.

The Penguins also need to look to life beyond Letang being their top defender. Perhaps Letang fits into that transition or perhaps his trade is the catalyst of that transition. The moves going forward will depend on other teams as much as the Penguins decisions.

And those moves will also depend on Kris Letang.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Melissa

    May 14, 2018 at 3:20 pm

    No. Just no to a trade.
    They need to give him this summer.
    A normal summer. To become his best self again.
    I trust that he will.

  2. Ricardo58

    May 14, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    I’m in the trade him camp. All of his mental errors and gaffes won’t be solved by more conditioning and practice. He is a veteran and should understand his responsibilities. Granted, I’ll agree his physical game could have or was negatively affected by the long layoff, but his mental game and errors were consistently inconsistent throughout the season.
    No doubt 58 is a good person! As a fan, I simply think his best days are behind him helping the Penguins as a number 1 d-man. If he remains with the team and continues to play as he did this past season, his value in a trade plummets more. Currently, the GM could possibly offer that 58 will be back to normal after this summer and a potential team will agree and offer a valuable asset while the Pens give more PT to 8. Go Pens!

  3. Pingback: PHN Extra: Kris Letang’s Future With the Penguins – InfoBreaker

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