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Kris Letang Comeback Off to Strong Start

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PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 04: Pittsburgh Penguins Defenseman Kris Letang (58) skates during the third period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals on October 4, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Penguins defeated the Capitals 7-6 in overtime. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

As Kris Letang executed a beautiful spin-o-rama followed by a tape-to-tape pass to Sidney Crosby for a scoring chance, the crowd at PPG Paints Arena gasped. And the hockey world was reminded just how good Kris Letang can be.

This season, Letang is one of a few Penguins’ players with something to prove. As his team struggled at times during the early stages of a young season, Letang has been a team leader in nearly every statistical category.

Letang by the Numbers

Currently, Letang (2) trails only Phil Kessel (3) for the team lead in goals and Letang is tied for third in points with four. He is tied for second in shots on goal with seven and has the third-best shooting percentage on the team. But his success has not been limited to just offense: five blocked shots, nine hits, five takeaways, and his workhorse-level 24:47 average time on ice all are among the team-leading statistics.

In puck posession, Letang has been very impressive. In five-on-five play, the top pairing defenseman has earned a 56 percent Corsi (56 shot attempts-for, 48 attempts-against). Worth mentioning–Letang has started 58 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. He is turning defense into offense. The Quebec native has the second best possession numbers on the Penguins, second only to Jake Guentzel.

There isn’t much argument Letang is the Penguins best defenseman. He has shown physicality but in a controlled, responsible way. A notable play Thursday saw the blueliner plant his shoulder bluntly into the center of Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland’s chest to separate Engelland from the puck. Another example was his separation of Erik Haula from the puck as he gained possession along the boards, effectively knocking Haula out of the play and disrupting Vegas’ empty-net attack.

Turning Over a New Leaf

“It’s a million times better. It’s not even close,” Letang declared at the start of training camp. “It feels good to be able to have those good sessions over the summer and be able to skate out there.”

Maybe most impressive is the way that Letang has conducted himself. After a wild game against Washington, a frustrating contest versus Montreal, and some hairy moments facing Vegas, there are zero penalty minutes on Letang’s scoresheet. He has not always been able to control his temper, but perhaps feeling good about his play makes it easier to maintain his composure. As Olli Maatta struggles, Juuso Riikola emerges, and Jack Johnson tries to find his place, Letang has stood out as a leader.

No, everything has not been perfect as witnessed in the season opener. A failed Letang clearing attempt directly led to a Capitals goal. The next Washington tally was largely due to Letang’s failure to pick up Ovechkin in the slot. But he brushed off the mistakes and went on to score two goals, including the overtime game-winner.

By Michael Miller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Anyone doubting that the Penguins are a better team with Letang need only to see his impact on his teammates. Touching on each line we see that Crosby’s possession metrics drop 17% without Letang, Evgeni Malkin’s drop 2%, Derick Brassard takes a 4% hit, and Riley Sheahan tumbles by 29%. Letang and Brian Dumoulin have been a steadying and enhancing presence.

Recently Letang passed Paul Coffey to become the leading points scorer among Penguins’ defensemen in franchise history. With three Stanley Cups, he cemented his place in franchise lore long ago, but a comeback this strong may end up being his defining season.

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