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Kris Letang, Defense Depth–Could Pens Adopt Caps, Vegas Strategy?

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Pittsburgh Penguins power play
Photo by Michael Miller

Conventional hockey wisdom is a team needs a true number one defenseman to win a Stanley Cup, yet the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals played for the Cup despite not having supposed all-world defensemen. Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt and Capitals top man John Carlson topped each team’s blue line chart. Carlson is at least a second-tier candidate, but Schmidt was exposed in the Expansion Draft, last summer.

Maybe it’s just not that important. Last year, there was much ado regarding Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang’s absence in the playoffs. Number one defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom, Letang, Duncan Keith, and Drew Doughty preceded the 2017 Penguins defense which was forced to roll with Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey as the top pair.

Respect to both Hainsey and Dumoulin, though Penguins center Matt Cullen’s kids didn’t show much respect when they hilariously turned Hainsey’s jeans into cutoffs during the 2017 Stanley Cup parade celebration, they weren’t the definition of “number one defenseman”.

This year, the Penguins defense was one of the most expensive in the NHL.

And that’s the point–there was still a 2017 Stanley Cup celebration despite the Penguins defense being without a top defender. And the Capitals thrilled a city with their first Stanley Cup without a high-test defenseman. Carlson netted 68 points this year but had only broken the 50-point barrier once before in his nine-year career. And even with 68 points (15g, 53a), he was even, +/-0.

Carlson’s current contract pays him only $3.96 million, his best Norris Trophy finish was 10th, once. In 2018 Round 2, Games 5 and 6, the Capitals were able to shut down the Penguins top line including Sidney Crosby with defensemen Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. That’s not a slight to Carlson, who is about to get a big payday via free agency, but it is to place his “number one defensemen” credentials in perspective.

The Golden Knights punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final in just 15 games, and they did it with Washington Capitals cast-away Nate Schmidt as their lead defenseman. Schmidt’s partner is former L.A. Kings depth defenseman Brayden McNabb, a King’s castoff.

Until the Western Conference Final, the Golden Knights owned the shots, scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance advantage against their opponents. And there is no shame to losing those battles to the powerful Winnipeg Jets. The Golden Knights defense did enough to help goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s series heist in just five games.

The Nashville Predators had a couple worthy top defender candidates but lost the 2017 Final to the Penguins and lost in the second round this year. The San Jose Sharks with Brent Burns were Round 2 fodder for the Golden Knights. In Round 1, the Golden Knights swept Doughty and the Kings. And the 2017 Penguins survived the Ottawa Senators with best defenseman in the world Erik Karlsson.

So, how crucial is a star defenseman, eating away 10 percent or more of a team’s total salary cap?

Alternate Routes

The Penguins will make changes this offseason. The Phil Kessel trade potential has hijacked much of the discussion, but that is just one potential route. Another route the Penguins could choose is to nibble at the edges, make some minor moves, and hope rest can cure what ailed them. Or, they could revamp the defense personnel. We know the Penguins fielded offers on defenseman Kris Letang in December.

The Penguins defense could easily form a Vegas comparable top pairing with Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schultz. Or Olli Maatta and Schultz. In fact, how much different than Carlson is the new and improved incarnation of Schultz?

Multiple sources through the season told Pittsburgh Hockey Now the Penguins coaches were very happy with Schultz’ defensive progress and overall work. He typically graded well after film study and his responsibility increased throughout the season.

That opens the door to more options, doesn’t it?

Sources also told Pittsburgh Hockey Now at different points in the season, the Penguins did take calls from other teams on Letang but were not actively shopping him. In late December, as the news became public, a source with knowledge of the situation said a Letang deal was “unlikely.”

And here’s an excerpt from last week’s PHN Extra analysis: “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.” (Join PHN Extra today to read the entire article, “Kris Letang’s Future with the Penguins”)

The offseason is a different animal. There are many teams looking for defensemen. The defenseman free agent market is woefully thin. A trade involving a top-flight defenseman could net big returns. The Penguins could choose the road less traveled and seek to downgrade the top of their defense chart in order to strengthen the bottom. The 2017 Stanley Cup champions were forced to do so, and the eventual 2018 champs did so as a matter of strategy.

It’s a thought which shouldn’t escape Penguins GM Jim Rutherford.



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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.

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