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Gajtka: Letang's Self-Sabotage Remains Real Problem
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Gajtka: Letang’s Self-Sabotage Remains Real Problem

it’s time for the coaching staff to ask some hard questions about the Penguins’ ice-time leader.

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Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

No disputing Kris Letang‘s postgame analysis after the Penguins coughed up what appeared to be a sure win Wednesday night in New York. He rarely dances around the truth when reporters poke and prod.

“I think we got cocky,” Letang said after a 4-3 overtime loss to the rebuilding Rangers. “We didn’t manage it and we got careless. We totally ruined it. Got too confident.”

That’s been the story of the season for a team simultaneously battle-hardened from back-to-back championship runs, yet seemingly unable to arouse themselves enough to avoid the brand of unsightly letdowns we saw at Madison Square Garden. With making the playoffs all but a sure thing, this one appeared to be the epitome of a ‘trap game.’

The Penguins looked to be on their way to avoiding that fate through the first 30 minutes, dominating the puck and poking in a couple goals against rookie goalie Alexandar Georgiev. It could’ve been a bigger lead, but the down payment was made.

Gasoline on a Fire

At that point, up 2-0, the Penguins began giving the still-speedy Rangers ample counterattack opportunities. And Letang’s repeated misreads of the play in front of him greatly contributed to the slow collapse.

Starting midway through the second period, Letang was repeatedly guilty of the ill-advised advances that have consistently sabotaged his comeback season. Let us count the mistakes without the puck …

• With 12:30 left in the second, he got caught flat-footed at the New York blue line, allowing Chris Kreider to blast past Brian Dumoulin for a prime chance that Casey DeSmith stopped.

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

(I cued up the following video to start with this play, so you can follow along.)

• With 11:20 left in the second, he jumped up into the neutral zone to try to help Phil Kessel keep the puck, despite three Rangers being in the vicinity. The puck was poked past Letang, giving John Gilmour and Vladislav Namestnikov a two-on-one.

• With 3:20 left in the third, with the Penguins killing a penalty, he got way too aggressive with Kreider, allowing the Rangers’ fleet winger to dangle past him and set up Mike Zibanejad‘s game-tying goal.

The Hard Truth

Letang had a ready explanation for the final blunder, saying he was “so scared of” Kreider’s speed that he got too close in an attempt to match Kreider’s pace. Like I said, his analysis is typically spot-on, even if his decision-making isn’t.

Hockey is a team game, and maybe the most fluid one among our major sports. It’s difficult — and frequently unfair — to boil down one result to an individual player. One decision by a teammate dictates your decision, which subsequently leads to another decision by someone else. For instance, on the first play highlighted above, a quick turnover on the far wall doesn’t help matters. Letang was in a very aggressive position, but better puck management would work wonders for all involved.

At the same time, Letang has been caught on the losing side of way too many of these read-and-react plays this season for it to be a coincidence. He’s always carried some risk in his game, yet in this first season post-neck surgery, it’s his mental game that’s often been a detriment.

The shame of it is that Letang’s physical abilities still seem to be there, which is probably no surprise considering his fanatical conditioning regimen. I’d still rank him among the best and most-skilled skaters in the NHL. He told our Shelly Anderson earlier this month that he couldn’t prepare like he wanted to last summer because of the rehab, but to my eye he hasn’t lost a step at age 30.

What’s the Verdict?

However, for all the talk in the second half of the season about how Letang has stayed within himself better, these persistent mental errors are short-circuiting what otherwise has the hallmarks of a feel-good comeback story. I didn’t even mention Kreider’s power-play goal in the third, in which Letang was slow to cover Kreider after Dumoulin failed to block a shot.

Even amidst Wednesday night’s madness, Letang threaded a shot through from the blue line, giving Riley Sheahan a chance for a deflection goal, and even looked decisive on the point of the power play, giving Evgeni Malkin good service to create a golden chance for Patric Hörnqvist in front. (See 4:55 mark of above video.)

Perhaps the good aspects of Letang’s game make his lapses more frustrating. In terms of shot share at even strength, Letang is having his best season in several years, boosting the Penguins’ Corsi For by a full 5 percent when he’s on the ice. At the same time, all it takes is a couple of mistakes in critical areas of the ice to cancel 25 minutes of fine work.

I’d still bet on the Penguins being fine once the stakes are raised. Letang’s play-reading problems don’t appear to be going away, though. It’s not a matter of effort or engagement, but it’s time for the coaching staff to ask themselves some hard questions about the man leading the team in ice time.

How much can they trust Letang? Their decisions in that regard could very well be the most pivotal in the Penguins’ run for history.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Ricardo58

    March 15, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    Wow! Spot on article. Your noted comments about his puck handling and mental lapses have been a reoccurring theme all season. 58 loves the pretty 5’ pass! IMO his risky play encourages his D teammates to play out of their comfort zone as he has an A on his jersey and is the ice time leader. Typically, a team game encourages others to follow their leaders and the D men have not been consistently strong and stingy this season.
    58 is revered by many fans almost to the level of 29. I’m curious to read other feedback. 58 is a top notch man and professional. My comments are based on his performance. His salary doesn’t match the performance. Go Pens!

  2. TonyMo

    March 15, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    The Letang Paradox -‘a circumstance by which a competing athlete willingly repeats actions known to him or her to have largely net negative consequences while simultaneously holding that said consequences are inconsequential’.

    The well known aphorism: ‘a triumph of hope over experience’ is also applicable.

    IMHO what happened in the 2nd has always been part of the Letang platter; the price paid for having such supreme, if at times, erratic talent. That version of Letang is still one of an elite difference maker as well as perhaps the most essential ingredient in their quest.

    But that 3rd period (and his post-game remarks) though?

    Yikes.

    • Dan Kingerski

      March 15, 2018 at 4:03 pm

      This may be a contender for the most intellectual comment on our board!

  3. AJ Smith

    March 15, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Yikes. Pittsburgh media is turning into Edmonton fast. Letang has a good game last night (he and Dumo gave up 0 (yeah that’s a zero) sigh danger chances 5on5) and you nitpicking tiny mistakes just makes you look bad. Why not talk about the fact that the Oleksiak-Schultz pairing got absolutely buried (again) or the fact that Crosby continues to underperform this season.

    Man I’d be embarrassed to have my name on this article.

    • Dan Kingerski

      March 15, 2018 at 5:02 pm

      Since Matt is enjoying college basketball at PPG today, I’ll respond. Letang was victimized by Kreider on Zibanejad’s power-play goal and was on the ice for the previous one, too. He was also victimized for the high danger scoring chances listed in the article. That’s not nitpicking to note a defenseman made large mistakes which exposed his team and cost them a goal. This site will give you the truth, never the pom-pom waving, sunny side up view. If that makes us Canadian, I’ll happily take the compliment, intended or not.

      • AJ Smith

        March 15, 2018 at 5:16 pm

        It is definitely nit-picking and you could do the same for every defenseman that was on the ice last night.

        I could point out that Zibanejad doesn’t score his PP goal if the other 3 PKers (mostly Dumoulin) didn’t let him pitch a tent, build a fire, and crack open a beer at the far post for an easy tap in.

  4. JoeMama

    March 15, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    The truth does not equal nit-picking.

    Every other D-man was not directly responsible for so many errors last nite.

    Every other D-man was not pumped up by some media to be ‘Norris caliber’ after signing that insane contract.

    Every other D-man is not supposedly one of the best skaters in the league, yet routinely gets smoked one v one.

    With that $7mil cap hit comes responsibility and expectations.

    I wish the league could track mental errors, because 58 would absolutely lead the league. He just isn’t a smart kid. Physically gifted, yes. But the gifts stop once you get past his shoulders.

    Imagine in the coming weeks …late in a must win game … Pens protecting a lead ….you want him on the ice? I don’t.

  5. Chief

    April 4, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    “At the same time, Letang has been caught on the losing side of way too many of these read-and-react plays this season for it to be a coincidence. He’s always carried some risk in his game, yet in this first season post-neck surgery, it’s his mental game that’s often been a detriment.“

    Sadly it has not gotten any better.

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