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Gajtka: Letang’s Bittersweet Comeback Earns Masterton Nod

He’d hoped to avoid living the cliché once again, but it’s the third time he’s been recognized this way.



Kris Letang Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeanine Leach / Icon Sportswire

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — He had hoped to avoid living the cliché once again.

As it is, Kris Letang will have to accept being the Penguins’ 2017-18 nominee for the Masterton Trophy, the third time he’s been recognized in this bittersweet way.

“It’s a great honor,” Letang conceded after Monday’s practice at Lemieux Sports Complex. “But at the same time, it’s always because of an injury or something that happened.”

Selected via a group vote by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA), Letang will represent the only organization he’s ever known as the Penguin who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” as the criteria for the Masterton reads.

The three finalists will be announced next month, but like most Masterton nominees, Letang has succeeded by simply arriving at this point. That doesn’t appear to be lost on him, despite his sheepish acceptance of his lot.

“It was good to be back this year,” he said. “It didn’t go the way I wanted all year long, but I’m just glad I’m playing hockey again. Obviously we’re a top team again in the league. We’re going to try to compete for another Cup.”

In Retrospect

Letang has spoken repeatedly about his frustrations this season, particularly how his neck surgery last spring set his trademark conditioning back significantly. Monday’s interview wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but there was an overarching positive tone to his comments.

Maybe it was the nomination, following up similar honors in 2013 and ’14. Maybe it was seeing the finish line in sight, with just six games to go before the playoffs.

“As the games get more important, I think my game’s gonna rise,” Letang said, “so I’m excited for that.”

It’s been a season befitting Letang’s career of peaks and valleys.

On the positive side, he’s missed just three games, due to a lower-body injury at midseason, so he’s accomplished something by simply staying healthy. Also, he has the best even-strength shot share and scoring chance ratio among Penguins defensemen, all while leading the defending Stanley Cup champions in ice time.

“It’s one thing to want to get back, to get healthy and playing the game again,” said Sidney Crosby, who knows something about long layoffs. “But to accept that role and be able to play it on a daily basis is pretty difficult. He’s taking hits and giving them. Getting up and down and into the play … those aren’t an easy 25 minutes. It’s pretty incredible what he’s been able to do.”

On the other hand, the Penguins have scored just 42 percent of all even-strength goals when Letang is on the ice; only Matt Hunwick (41 percent) is worse on the defense corps. Letang’s points-per-game rate of 0.62 is his worst since his stroke-shortened season of 2013-14. Jim Rutherford at least tested the trade waters regarding his franchise defenseman at midseason.

Perhaps most glaring, Letang made an array of obvious mistakes this season, most of them related to decision-making and reading the play.

Give and Take

The Letang Paradox isn’t lost on the man himself.

He has been asked repeatedly by Penguins management over the years to tone down his risk-taking, if only to spare his body further wear. From the sounds of it, his brush with career-ending injury might’ve finally pounded that message through. However, his attempt to change the way he plays might also be contributing to the indecisiveness in his game this season.

“What if some nights I didn’t take those hits and I just tried to live for another day?” Letang asked, rhetorically. “But you know what? It was me. It’s my personality. I’m the guy that’s trying on every little play. I won’t live with regrets. The team that knows what kind of player I am and I’m ready to put everything on the line. I don’t want to have any regrets on this.”

For all of Letang’s famed stubbornness, you can’t accuse the man of dodging questions. As a 30-year-old assistant captain who has dealt with more serious health problems than some people will in their lifetimes, there’s some mature perspective on display when he opens his mouth.

At the same time, a child-like addiction to the simple thrills of the game keeps Letang coming back to the rink … and staying on it, as he’s been known to do following practices throughout his career.

“Sometimes you don’t realize how lucky you are to play,” Letang said. “I had the chance to live that last year when I was watching guys play. When I came back, you never know when it’s gonna stop and you never know when you’re gonna be on the sideline. So, I enjoy every moment right now.”

Another Chance

To the right of Letang’s Adam’s apple, there’s a telltale surgical scar. He joked he’s trying to get rid of it, but surely some days when he looks in the mirror, his mind wanders back to last year’s playoffs, when he was consigned to an improv coaching role while his teammates pushed for a repeat.

That’s not how the guy who staked a serious claim to the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy was hoping to offer a postseason encore. Quite the opposite in fact.

Again, though, Letang spun the conversation forward. He’s been waiting nearly two years for the chance to help the Penguins defend their title. Thanks to what his teammates were able to do with him in the press box, he’ll get that rare opportunity.

“Last year it was fun to watch and everything,” Letang said. “I couldn’t really do anything except talking. But to be a part of it, to go through that experience with the guys, it’s gonna be fun.”

Contrast that attitude with the morbid nature of the Masterton, whose namesake Bill is still the only hockey player to die as a direct result of injuries sustained during an NHL game. Letang has a decent chance to take a run at the prize, usually given to the player who’s overcome circumstances beyond his control.

As noted, maybe Letang’s style of play welcomes bodily harm in a sport that needs no excuse to inflict pain and carnage. While Letang wrestles with this, he’s still impressing teammates with his indefatigability, which gives him more of a chance to change a game than almost anyone else in the NHL.

“I think it speaks to his ability,” marveled his new defense partner Jamie Oleksiak. “For a guy who skates that well and is so involved in the play, to play an active 25 minutes, on PK, PP, OT … you can put him on in any situation. That just speaks to how dynamic he is as a defenseman.”