Kris Letang is hurting the Pittsburgh Penguins. And helping them. And hurting them again. The Penguins defenseman’s up and down season has continued in the playoffs. Letang was one of the best Penguins in Game 4. His glaring mistakes in Game 5 gifted the Washington Capitals the game-tying and game-winning goals.
The Penguins overreliance on Letang is another mistake. But, it doesn’t need to be. Justin Schultz has become a reliable all-around defender who is crisp with his breakouts, has good vision with the puck and has become unflinchingly stable in the defensive zone.
It’s time the Penguin stopped gambling on Letang and started placing a safer bet on Schultz as their top defenseman.
Less ice time would minimize Letang’s potential contributions. He has 10 points (2g, 8a) in 11 playoff games. Even his Corsi rating is over 55 percent. But, those are misleading because it is no longer if Letang will make a mistake, it is a matter of when. By limiting Letang’s ice time, it would diminish his contributions, but more importantly, it would also restrict his potential gaffes.
His continued exchange with Brian Dumoulin after the game-tying goal in Game 5 is also indicative of a player fighting himself. Dumoulin flailed his arms after watching the scoreboard replay, in exasperation. However, Letang continued the discussion with the tablet as the pair sat on the bench.
Dumoulin was right. Letang was wrong.
Bad pinches and penalties. Like Game 6 against Philadelphia, Round 1. Game 3 against Washington, Round 2. And Game 5.
Given the unpredictable ebbs and flows of Letang’s game, that’s a bet the Penguins can no longer afford to lose. As their top defenseman, Penguins coaches have heaped huge minutes on Letang. He played over 23 minutes in Game 5. That’s conventional wisdom and thinking. Though it doesn’t take into account the reality of Letang’s wildly inconsistent season which has been marred by turnovers and gaffes.
In reality, Letang hasn’t been the Penguins best defenseman. So, there is no reason to put the most responsibility on him other than time-honored tradition. The list of errors, penalties, and turnovers has gotten too long to trust the player with 23 or 25 minutes per game.
It is Schultz who has been the Penguins best defender. Assistant coaches Sergei Gonchar and Jacques Martin have shepherded Schultz’ development, which has been somewhat remarkable. The smiling, affable Schultz was run out of Edmonton after being a highly sought NCAA free agent. The Penguins acquired him for only a third-round choice in 2016.
Schultz is no longer a liability or a lost puppy behind his own blue line; in fact, it has become a strength of his game. He smoothly adjusts to his man and nullifies the threat and can move the puck from danger.
Schultz has “only” seven points (1g, 6a) in 11 playoff games. But, count the gaffes which have led to goals, you won’t need all five fingers. A single thumb will do.
His pairing with 6-foot-7, 260 pound Jamie Oleksiak also offers the Penguins an exciting blend of offense and physical defense. Oleksiak has dished 35 hits in these playoffs, despite until recently limited ice time. Oleksiak-Schultz is the Penguins most dynamic defensive combination, as both players offer a full skill set.
Oleksiak was also a cast-off which the Penguins were only too happy to rescue. He was acquired for a fourth-round pick this season.
Sunday, Sullivan said of Oleksiak, “We think Jamie’s played better with some of the minutes we’ve given him. He tends to play better the more minutes he plays. I thought last night might have been his best game of the series.”
So what are the Penguins waiting for?
Watch Schultz pinch to keep this play alive, win a puck battle, quickly return to position and Jamie Oleksiak nearly finish the sequence. This is Exhibit A why Schultz-Oleksiak is the Penguins top pair. This really is a wonderful shift:
Oleksiak has climbed out of Sullivan’s doghouse to earn significant minutes, again. That pair both offers offensive ability, good pinches with appropriate back coverage, strong play on the wall, good shots and good vision. If it sounds like there isn’t much of a downside, that’s because there isn’t.
The worst case scenario is Schultz is slotted for heavy minutes and Oleksiak is rough is to quickly flip smooth defenseman Olli Maatta to the pair.
Jekyll and Hide
The Penguins are making an unforced error by rolling the dice each night on Letang when the extra minutes could be in Schultz’ safer hands. The Penguins forwards have provided enough offense to win the series.
Which Letang will show up? The Penguins are out of chances and out of time to find out.
The Penguins have outplayed the Capitals, but the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins will face the potential end of their season, tomorrow in Game 6. It is the first time they will stare at elimination in a Game 6 since 2016 Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They cannot afford continued mistakes by their top defenseman. Nor can they afford the gamble, not when a safer option with the offensive side like Schultz is already available.