No, Kris Letang doesn’t suck. For the second time in four years, the Penguins defenseman came back from serious injury. This comeback was shakier than past attempts. It didn’t begin well. Turnovers, gaffes, and struggles led many to wonder if Letang could fully comeback.
Letang will play in his fourth All-Star game, tomorrow. He averages over 25 minutes per game, leads the most devastating power-play in the league and is on pace for 49 points. Letang has neither lost speed or the ability to orchestrate the offensive rush.
After a few months, he is back. What he left behind is the reckless physical play.
Neck surgery, preceded by a stroke, multiple concussions, and 10 other injuries finally made a dent in the wrecking ball defenseman. His game no longer appears the same because he is no longer colliding with opposing forwards of all sizes. Letang is not absorbing or delivering those big hits.
This season, Letang has dished nearly the same number of hits per game (1.41) as last season (1.71), but the battles are different. Smarter. After multiple requests to play with some regard for his health, he is adapting.
His game suffered for the first couple months of the season. He has as many turnovers in 48 games this season (68) as he did in 71 games of 2015-16 (69). Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has also come back from serious injury, provided some insight to Pittsburgh Hockey Now.
“I’m sure he feels more comfortable now than he did at the start. That’s a pretty serious injury he had, and it takes a while to get the timing and everything that comes with being hurt. It’s a lot of different things – confidence, you name it. But he’s done a great job for us, and that’s not an easy thing to come back from,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Confidence. It changes the game for hockey players and Letang had to earn it. He is even a +1 in January.
There are times when the television screen only tells part of the story. And then there are times when the screen not only gives a confusing story, it gives an entirely false impression. This is why Letang is a current blogosphere and message board goat.
The Penguins recently heightened emphasis on activating the defense (it’s always been a staple, but more so recently) for more offense has shone a spotlight on the Penguins defensemen and the forwards defensive responsibility, or lack thereof.
“He’s the type of guy who loves having the puck on his stick and making things happen. He’s doing that,” defense partner Brian Dumoulin told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “We know (Letang) is going to hang in there, try to keep that play alive, Especially for me. I’ve got to read off that and know that. That’s what we’re still building on.”
Therein lies one impetus to Letang’s negative image: Letang trapped up ice or seeming to yield an odd-man break. The reality is the Penguins forwards have been bad at covering for pinching defensemen. You may review Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s film study for detailed analysis of the breakdowns.
Instead of the third forward covering the high zone when Letang or other defensemen go low, the Penguins wingers were slow to adapt. Opposing teams did not mind.
Should a defenseman trust his teammates to do their job or trust that they won’t? (Hint: It’s the first one).
Points Per Game
Letang’s points per game are down this season. Over the last two seasons, Letang’s production has ranged from .84 to .94 points per game.
Those were different Penguins teams, too. The current top-heavy version isn’t producing points throughout the lineup like past Penguins iterations. So, a player like Letang who creates more plays than finishes chances will see a decline in numbers.
However, with the strong incline to his level of play, and the Penguins actively seeking to solve their roster issues, expect Letang’s statistics to catch up to past norms. expect Letang to well surpass 50 points.
It took a while, but Letang is back and it’s OK to admit it.
(The Great Shelly Anderson also contributed to this piece)