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Kingerski: Did Anyone Notice the Kris Letang Snub?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Kris Letang

The NHL Network did not rank Pittsburgh Penguins blueliner Kris Letang among its top 20 NHL defensemen.

Does that seem a little off to anyone else? The NHL has veered towards mobile, quick, and offensive defensemen. Admittedly, Letang had an extraordinarily difficult 2022-23 season with a stroke, the passing of his father, and a team around him that otherwise failed to find its heart when it mattered.

Letang slumped to 41 points in 64 games and posted a minus for just the third time in 13 years.

Letang has long been overlooked, finishing in the top five of Norris Trophy voting only twice in his career despite eight top-10 finishes. Last week, the NHL Network put defensemen Brandon Montour, Drew Doughty, Shea Theodore, and Jaccob Slavin ahead of Letang.

They are fine defensemen, but except for Doughty, have any of the above shown a greater impact on their team, consistently scored more points, or been a more notable player than Letang?

It seemed a tad disrespectful to the Masteron Trophy winner, actually. It’s been over five years since Daughty finished in the top 15 of Norris Trophy voting, and others haven’t yet cracked the top-10.

Mikhail Sergachev was on the list at No. 17, and at age 25, he finally popped for his breakout season with 64 points (10-54-64) in 79 games, but he had just 38 points in the season before.

Slavin had 27 points in 76 games, and Montour had a monster season with the Florida Panthers, scoring 73 points in 80 games, but it was the first time in his seven-year career that he scored more than 37.

The advanced stats in this argument are always a bit of a jumble because often they are subjective thoughts trying to create objective analysis, but one interesting “big picture” statistic beyond the value over replacement (WAR) is Point Shares (PS) from HockeyReference and Stathead. Based on combined defensive and offensive performance, Letang’s average contribution to the Penguins’ final standings is just under nine points per season.

He ranks among the most prominent defensemen.

His slip last season was down to a 5.5-point contribution which still placed him in solid company. In 2021-22, he contributed an impressive 10.6 points to the column. By comparison, Montour’s five-year average is about 4.3, though he soared to 9.9 last season. Slavin’s five-year PS is 6.8; last year, he contributed about 6.7 points to the Hurricanes total.

Doughty’s five-year PS is 6, and last season he was at 8.5 Even Theodore’s five-year average PS is under is under eight and was only at 6.8 last season on the defensive-friendly Vegas Golden Knights Stanley Cup champion.

The above is meant to take away nothing from good defensemen but rather to call out an outright snub.

If you’re looking at defensemen who have the most impact on their team’s standings, play at both ends of the ice (at least reasonably well), and drive their team, Letang easily places in the top 20.

Perhaps moving forward, newly acquired Penguins’ defenseman Erik Karlsson will eat a lot of the minutes and opportunities that were once saddled to Letang. However, based on public comments from all involved, it doesn’t sound like Letang will be getting significantly less ice time and will be on the ice with some pretty good players, such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, in high-leverage situations.

Karlsson probably isn’t the guy the Penguins will use to defend a one-goal lead in the final minute, and while Letang’s future as a top defender is either limited or muddled, at 36 years old, there have been no signs of slowing or deterioration in his game.

Perhaps the biggest deterioration has been in perception.

Give me a defender who adds eight or 10 points to the standings every season over a perfectly reliable D-man who adds five. I’ll take a defenseman who can carry the puck up the ice over one who must rely on outlet passes or chips off the wall. And I’ll happily take a defenseman who struggles through a bad season beset by the worst circumstances over a defenseman with less talent.

Yeah, I’d take Kris Letang over a handful of the top 20 defensemen in the NHL. Here’s the NHL Network list.

  1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
  2. Adam Fox, New York Rangers
  3. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
  4. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
  5. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
  6. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
  7. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
  8. Erik Karlsson, Pittsburgh Penguins
  9. Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights
  10. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
  11. Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets
  12. Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
  13. Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche
  14. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
  15. Hampus Lindholm, Boston Bruins
  16. Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes
  17. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
  18. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
  19. Brandon Montour, Florida Panthers
  20. Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights