Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang received three second-place and 14 third-place votes for the Norris Trophy last season. The votes were a recognition of one of the best seasons of Letang’s career. However, that was last season and moving forward to the 2019-20 season, the Penguins will need Letang to provide an offensive spark from the blue line even more desperately. Letang will be one of the deciding factors of the Penguins season.
No pressure, right?
When the Penguins traded Phil Kesse for Alex Galchenyuk, they rid themselves of a disruptive player, a defensive liability but also a point per game and a power-play force. Galchenyuk may be as much as a 33% loss or he could be an even trade if he improves the Penguins goals differential while scoring 50 points. Regardless of which way the pendulum swings, the Penguins will have less offensive.
The Penguins also have four defensive-defensemen in their top-six and Justin Schultz on the rebound. The team will scratch and claw for offense beyond their few proven stars. It will be a much different team and the pressure of Letang to produce will be great.
The Penguins will have more eggs than they’d like in Letang’s basket.
Last season, Letang scored 56 points (16g, 40a) in just 65 games. He was back to his dynamic self but his turnover rate (1.16 per game) was slightly above his career rate, though his takeaways (.97 per game) were above his career norms.
First, the Penguins will need the turnover rate to come down. Puck maintenance will be vital for a team which will score fewer goals. Second, the Penguins can only hope Schultz returns to the 40 or 50-point defenseman who earned the three-year, $5.5 AAV.
Only Letang can make up for Schultz’ production, should Schultz not produce expected numbers. An offensive explosion won’t come from Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, or Brian Dumoulin, either.
What the Penguins Need From Letang
The Penguins need Letang to carry their defense. The 32-year-old defenseman is more than capable, as long as he doesn’t try to do too much. And therein lays a potential pitfall of the Penguins current construct. The Penguins have a couple or few players who understand they are the backbone of the team and sometimes feel that pressure which results in negative play.
Evgeni Malkin, for instance.
The Penguins will first and foremost desperately need Letang to stay healthy. The Penguins managed to win games down the stretch last season without Letang and Malkin, but that won’t be an optimal strategy moving forward. The Penguins will need Letang to run their power play without Phil Kessel, and they will need to yield far fewer shorthanded goals.
And the Penguins will need more 5v5 points from Letang. Last season, Letang’s assist total was nearly split evenly between even-strength helpers (22) and power-play assists (17). Give the likelihood of the Penguins subdued offensive output, Letang will be one of those called up on to put digits on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Letang would very much like to be seen in that pantheon of defenseman. He would like his name mentioned with Victor Hedman, Brent Burns, or any other defenseman you care to name. His rebound last season and Norris Trophy votes were a positive affirmation. What comes next for Letang could be equal or better as his confidence has returned. We don’t see any regression but it’s also hard to predict anything more than he gave the Penguins last season.
Put Letang down for 20 goals. 40 assists. And about 60 games. We will predict a similar turnover rate as he forces the issue occasionally, and another high takeaway rate, too. His defense partner Brian Dumoulin has been a perfect side-car and will mitigate the additional chances Letang will take.
Whether Galchenyuk or Jake Guentzel takes Kessel’s power-play spot will be somewhat irrelevant to Letang’s final stats, as the power play may only move Letang’s total plus or minus five points.
Letang has no reason to change his game, save for a couple less turnovers. And we’ll also bet on a few Norris Trophy votes this season, too.