At the age of 32, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang received legitimate Norris Trophy consideration last season. He received three second-place votes and 49 writers included him on their ballot. The votes by themselves do not prove anything but the stats with the superior play merited being in the conversation with the best. Yet, the sometimes fickle Penguins fan base often holds his down moments and mistakes against him well beyond the expiration date.
Letang has three Stanley Cup rings, five All-Star Game appearances and a pair of second-team All-Star awards. There are few defensemen in the league like Letang and the others generally make truckloads of money.
The lightning rod defenseman suffered a serious neck injury in early 2017 during what was potentially a Norris Trophy-winning season. The injury caused him to miss the remainder of the 2016-17 season including the Penguins Stanley Cup championship and greatly limited him in 2017-18. However, Letang was healthy and unincumbered last season. He scored 56 points (16g, 40a) in 65 games before a late-season injury caused him to miss several weeks. Aside from Sidney Crosby, Letang was the Penguins best player.
It was a conversation with season ticket holder this week which spurred the thoughts and I promised I would write about it. The Penguins may have a problem scoring enough goals, or at very least it is a concern until proven otherwise. I’ve heard the suggestion many times before just as I did again this week, “He doesn’t play defense, why don’t they try Letang on the wing?”
That’s the funny thing about Letang. He does play defense. He doesn’t just lineup as a defenseman, or carry the D before his name as if he’s appearing on C-SPAN. Letang is one of the rare breeds of defensemen who plays 25 minutes per game, defends against the opponent’s top line, and plays on both ends of the rink. His skating is well above average, he’s become one of the best power-play points in the league, he is physical (sometimes to the chagrin of the Penguins) and believe it or not, he takes care of the defensive zone.
Despite facing the opponent’s best, Letang boasts positive puck possession (53.5% Corsi).
So, perhaps it’s time to appreciate Kris Letang.
That’s not to say he is above criticism for the occasional defensive miscue or turnover. Sure, even this writer created a little viral stir with criticism in the moments following a botched coverage in the 2017 Round Two, Game 6 which ended the Penguins two-year Stanley Cup reign.
After watching Letang struggle through 2017-18, it was easy to believe the end was nigh. After the neck injury and limited season, the Penguins wondered the same internally, too. But the rock star rebound which occurred last season was more than impressive. Letang figuratively made us eat our words.
Not just homers, but writers around the league noticed Letang, too.
But what about those gaffes, turnovers, miscues and a seemingly large plate of mistakes? Well, an examination of the statistics of the top defensemen in the league put those in perspective, too. Letang was not great, or healthy, in the Penguins Round One loss to the New York Islanders last April. Like the rest of his teammates, Letang had a series to forget, but the totality of his comeback season shouldn’t be tarnished or washed away.
Those moments should be put into context. The other best defensemen in the game such as Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and John Carlson make the same mistakes. Perhaps they are unavoidable in a constant high stakes game.
The Penguins could struggle to find themselves this season. There is a feeling of change and uncertainty. But no, Kris Letang shouldn’t play on the wing. He’s just fine on defense.