What if these are the waning months of Kris Letang’s career with the Pittsburgh Penguins? After this season, the highly skilled defenseman and franchise cornerstone player is in line to become an unrestricted free agent. He will be 35 by then and has had some injury and other health setbacks over the years.
But Letang also has racked up 900 games as of Sunday’s 3-2 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets, all with the Penguins, who pretty obviously got a steal when they drafted him in the third round, 62nd overall, in 2005, 61 spots after teammate Sidney Crosby.
Letang logs big minutes on the top pairing, quarterbacks the power play, skates superbly, has a strong offensive flair, and keeps himself in phenomenal shape.
Put it to a vote, and it seems likely that anyone who keeps the Penguins’ interest at heart would push for Letang to re-sign and finish his career in Pittsburgh.
Teammate Kasperi Kapanen surely would.
“He’s been playing at a high level for a long time,” Kapanen said after Sunday’s game. “I think he’s one of the most underrated defensemen out there. I’m happy for him. Hopefully, he plays another 900 more.”
Letang, who has 137 goals and 480 assists for 617 points in those 900 games, had his 10-game point streak come to an end Sunday. But consider that, according to the league, he is one of just five defensemen ever to compile a 10-game point streak aged 34 or over.
He is the fourth player to reach 900 games inclusively with the Penguins, after current teammates Crosby (1,068) and Evgeni Malkin (947) and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux (915).
“It’s awesome to have a chance to play with those guys for that many games, winning three Cups with these guys. Being part of this organization is special,” Letang said.
“As a kid, you don’t think it’s going to happen, and here I am playing with probably one of the best players to ever play the game (in Crosby).”
As he recalls, he’s come a long way from the first time he stepped onto the ice for an NHL game.
“My first shift was a tough one,” Letang said. “I lost my stick. I went to grab it. The puck hit my stick and went the other way. So it was a memorable shift.
“But overall, we won the game 4-0 against Philly, so a rivalry like that for my first game was pretty cool.”
That was Oct 6, 2006. Letang had no points, was a plus-1, had no shots and played 15:01.
It was the start of something big.
During his early years in the league, Kris Letang took losing hard. Heck, he took being the subject of pranks by veteran teammates hard (ask him sometime about finding his suit sleeves sewn shut with a team plane to catch).
He could come off as moody, but it was probably more a case of caring a lot and needing to learn to balance the good with the bad.
Letang always has had pride, and occasionally that has led to a bit of prickliness off the ice. Like the time after the Penguins’ 2019 first-round playoff exit when he furrowed his fuzzy brows and defended the risks he needs to sometimes take to play his high-paced, aggressive style.
Still, he has been a hugely valuable asset by any quantitative or subjective measure.
Earlier this season, Letang hedged on how long he wants to continue playing but acknowledged he’s eyeing five more years at least.
Salary cap concerns, possible direction from a new ownership group and how Letang feels about things, among other factors, will determine whether Letang returns with the Penguins next season.
A good guess is that there could be a revolt of some sort if he ends up in another uniform.
Kris Letang speaks after Sunday’s game: