Kris Letang is often a high-wire act worthy of the bright lights and costumes of Circque du Soleil. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman is unquestionably one of the best in the game and will soon be one of seven active defensemen to rack up 400 assists and the only one in Penguins history.
He also makes a few mistakes.
Trying to keep the mistakes in context can be a tricky proposition. PHN analyzed the number of turnovers this summer in comparison to the other top defensemen and found Letang fits right in, for better and worse.
Sunday night, it was decidedly for the worse.
Letang was credited with two turnovers but the real number seemed to be twice that on Sunday night. Florida forward Frank Vatrano breezed by him two minutes into the game for the first Florida goal. Alexander Barkov whizzed past for a shorthanded breakaway in the second period. He had the puck stolen by Denis Malgin who backchecked Letang as he tried to skate to center ice in the third period, and…well, you get the idea.
“I think (Letang) can simplify his game in those situations,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “(He) and I have had this conversation. And it’s ongoing with us.”
Letang was a minus-2 in over 24 minutes of ice time, just 22 hours after an overtime win in Montreal in which Letang also logged heavy minutes. The Penguins ask a lot of Letang, and sometimes their defenseman falls off the highwire.
“(Letang) has the ability to be a difference-maker and we don’t want to take the stick out of his hand, but as we say to all of our players, sometimes, the best play is a simple play. It’s (about) recognizing those situations.”
That Sullivan didn’t spin the Letang question to the positive and instead admitted he wants Letang to tone it down speaks volumes, as well. Sullivan is not a coach to call out his players publicly, even as cameras sometimes catch a few of the seven dirty words on the bench.
Statistically, Letang is having another superior season. He has 26 points, including eight goals in just 33 games. He is an All-Star Game candidate via the “Last-Men In” vote.
Yet, the last few weeks have been rocky for the defensemen who returned from injury on Nov. 25 and Kris Letang hasn’t scored a point in his last eight games.
“It’s not going to be perfect out there, especially guys who log the type of minutes that “Tanger” logs. It’s not going to be a flawless game,” Sullivan said. “But that’s a conversation that “Tanger” and I have fairly frequently.
In other words, Sullivan is also on Letang to dial back the attempts at bigger plays and to better pick his spots to use his skills. The game snowballed on Kris Letang on Sunday. And without other lightning rods, it has again become Letang’s turn in the social media crosshairs.
Given the injuries the Penguins have suffered this season, it’s not out of the question that Letang is nursing an injury because the Penguins desperately need him in the lineup. Kevin Czuczman who hasn’t played an NHL game since 2014 is the next man up if any of the Penguins defensemen go down.
It’s been that kind of season for the Penguins. However, now is when the Penguins need the best version of Letang, and perhaps that is the temporary problem as one of the Penguins few core players left standing, he feels that pressure to do more.
Regardless of the reasons, even the Penguins head coach had a message. “Simplify.”