What can the Penguins do with Kris Letang?
Letang is one of the most underappreciated defensemen in the National Hockey League. His dynamic play sometimes appeared to have a reckless abandon for personal safety and despite play which has merited Norris Trophy consideration, Letang has been a finalist only once. He finished in the top 10 of Norris Trophy voting four times.
General Manager Jim Rutherford has called him the straw which stirs the drink. He is part of the Penguins core on the ice and in the locker room.
The above is not hollow praise to make way for piles of criticism. He has returned from a stroke, at least three concussions and one upper body injury, three lower body injuries, a knee injury, broken toe, a groin injury, a broken hand, a broken foot, elbow infection and finally, neck surgery last April.
It’s a small wonder his nickname isn’t “Lucky”.
Letang missed half of last season with injuries and was sidelined for the second half of the season with the neck injury which required surgery. He also missed all of the playoffs. This season, Letang has shown flashes of his superior skill, but far more flashes of a defenseman fighting the game.
I’ve been focusing in on Letang tonight & he’s just not good right now. Ill-advised passes and pinches, blind passes, bad penalties. He has the raw talent to turn things around, but right now he’s not good & a -14. #pens
— Vince Comunale (@PGHVC) November 15, 2017
(Quick props to Vince–he’s a sharp hockey guy and worth a Twitter follow. )
Scratch Letang? Bad Idea
No. Hell no.
Letang’s health after neck surgery appears to be 100%. He is not laboring or a step slow. But, something is wrong. Is he pressing? Thinking too much about protecting himself (after years of being implored to be more careful)? Is he rusty?
When things go wrong in hockey, they tend to snowball. Just as when things go right, they accumulate quickly. Letang is fighting his way through all phases of the game.
A growing suggestion on Twitter and on the internet is to scratch Letang for a game, give him the Clint Hurdle “unplug for a day” treatment. While such a break works in a 162 game schedule, it would likely have adverse consequences in this situation.
Players of Letang’s caliber are not made a healthy scratch. They just aren’t. It would be an embarrassment to Letang and likely exacerbate the situation. The defenseman can also be an emotional player who in the past has been sensitive to external perceptions (Lord knows I would be too). News of Letang being served pressbox nachos, even for one game, and even with all of the gentle explanations in the world, would be a widely talked about event.
Also, Letang is playing well enough to remain in the lineup, when compared to other defensemen. Grading Letang against himself may not currently yield high marks, but against other defensemen–he belongs on the ice.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Letang’s current output of scoring chances and Corsi are in line with career averages. His shots and high-danger scoring chances are, however, down. That supports the notion that Letang is playing enough quality hockey to remain on the ice, even if he matching his previously high output.
Such a drastic measure–scratching Letang–would invite scrutiny rather than abate it and likely make the situation worse. Bad, bad idea.
Good Ideas–Protection, Simplify
The hockey adage for a player like Letang is to let them play through it. Essentially, act like nothing is wrong. Perhaps even feed such players more ice time to increase the chances of a spark.
Letang has played more than 25 minutes in 16 of 20 games. He’s played 28 minutes or more, four times. Perhaps it’s time to dial down Letang’s ice time and responsibility. Allow Letang to simplify his game, focus on the little things in his game which are currently out-of-sorts.
Push the Cole-Schultz pairing to first line minutes for a couple or few games. The Penguins survived the Stanley Cup playoffs without Letang as the number one defenseman, and perhaps they could survive a couple games in November, too.
There isn’t a magic bullet solution to what ails Letang. It will come back around, and soon enough, he will look like the player who was fourth in the balloting for the Norris Trophy, in 2016.
And if all of that fails, perhaps Letang could borrow Sidney Crosby’s slump buster and warm up without a helmet, too. On second thought, with his injury luck, no. Don’t do that either.