Kris Letang brushed his finger over a scabby portion of his upper lip that seemed as if it might have been hamburger-like a couple of days ago. It’s a minor annoyance now, far from Letang’s biggest concern in a season that has raised much bigger issues.
“It’s been a long road, but it’s getting better. It’s not going the other way. So it’s positive. I think I can still improve my game,” the Penguins skilled defenseman, part of the team’s core group for a decade, said Monday in an interview session with reporters after the team’s morning skate.
Letang was as candid as he has been all season about getting his game back and struggling through inconsistency following neck surgery last spring. Criticism from outside the organization and even from himself grew as the first three or four months of the season unfolded. Turnovers and other mistakes – the timing of when to pinch deep, for example – seemed magnified.
“It was not so much of, ‘Oh, I can’t play anymore.’ It was lapses,” Letang said. “It was one good shift, one bad one. At the end of the day, people remember – and I remember – my bad shifts. But I was totally capable of doing the job. I was totally able to be myself. It was just a question of doing it for 60 minutes and being committed to the details.”
Feb. 21 marked a year since Letang left the lineup with what was eventually diagnosed as a disc problem in his neck. He had surgery in early April, leaving the Penguins to win their second straight Stanley Cup without him. The recovery timetable offered then was four to six months.
But there was a lot more to the recovery than the healing at the surgery site. Becoming Kris Letang again would take, as it turned out, about a year from the time he exited the lineup.
“We think his game has gained a whole lot of traction here the last five or six weeks,” coach Mike Sullivan said.
Numbers Tell A Story
Letang ranks fourth on the club with 40 points (his fifth season with at least 40), including six goals. His assist on Sidney Crosby’s overtime winning goal Saturday against the New York Islanders was the 333rd of his career, moving him past Paul Coffey into first place all-time among Penguins defensemen.
“It’s pretty cool, except that it took him three years to do that. It took me 12,” Letang, 30, said with a laugh and some slight exaggeration. (Subscribers only: Read more of Letang talking about Coffey.)
It’s likely easier to be in a good mood these days. Letang scored in Monday’s win against Calgary and has nine points (three goals, six assists) over the past 10 games. After at one point having the most bloated plus-minus in the league, he is a plus-nine with no minus games in that recent 10-game stretch.
The wisdom of hindsight has allowed Letang to understand that getting his game back to something close to where he wants it was always going to take a long time.
“If you look in the previous years, the way I train, I train for being able to skate for a long time, being able to play big minutes,” he said. “If I miss eight months, it didn’t allow me to train. I was only allowed to skate the last week of the summer. So I had a lot of catch-up to do. The bad thing about it, it was during the season. I think it was a work in progress.”
Letang didn’t think it would take this long, even when Sullivan spelled it out in a meeting before training camp.
“Me and Sully sat early in September and (he) said that we were not expecting me to be at the top of my game in the first few months and that it would take months,” said Letang, who was skeptical then. “He was right, and now I’m starting to play a little bit better and, hopefully, I’m going to hit my best strides when we get into the playoffs.”
Letang has a reputation of being a workout beast, so it’s not hard to imagine that he was a prize pupil during his rehab. Asked who else should get credit for helping him get back toward the top of his game, Letang didn’t point to a trainer or physical therapist, or even defensive coach Sergei Gonchar.
“Sully, he kept playing me,” said Letang, who has continued to play his typically big minutes. His average of 25:20 of ice time is more than four minutes more than any of his teammates.
“He knew I’m the type of guy that builds up workload and that’s how I get better. He kept having confidence I would improve my game by playing me and playing the minutes I should be playing. I think that was the biggest thing.”
In Letang They Trusted
Letang said he remained in disbelief it would take this long, but he struggled with consistency, especially with the large number of back-to-back games the Penguins had early in the season.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was a long time without playing, without training. I didn’t believe (Sullivan) at first, but it made sense.”
Sullivan never wavered in his decision to keep putting Letang on the ice.
“There was never a time that we questioned it because he’s so important to this team,” Sullivan said. “We knew in the big picture it was important to allow him to play through it. That’s what we were trying to do with him, is give him an opportunity to play through it. He had some good games for us. He had some games where we know he could be better. I think what was important is that, as his coaching staff, we had to keep it in perspective and help him manage his own emotional level going through the process.
“He’s a terrific person and he cares so much about this team and trying to help this team win. He’s a hard critic of himself. That’s one of the things we love about him, is just his care factor for this organization, helping this team win, is off the charts.”