There was a time when Kris Letang placed an emphasis on winning individual awards. The recognition and status that a Norris Trophy would bring are the kinds of thing which elevate a career.
Letang, 31, has returned this season with a vengeance. He has shed the ups and downs and limitations of injury to not only insert his name in Norris Trophy talk, but assert it.
In 34 games this season, Letang has 28 points (8g, 20a). He ranks among the top 10 in defenseman scoring and unlike last season, his 5v5 play is yielding more goals for the Penguins than the opponents.
And now that Letang’s name is being tossed about for recognition, it doesn’t seem that important to the Penguins long-time defenseman.
Letang fluffed off Norris talk to Pittsburgh Hockey Now, “Not really. I’m surrounded by guys like Geno and Sid, who have been carrying our team for so many years,” Letang smiled. “I’m just enjoying my time playing hockey with these guys and trying to win another title with them.
Letang is clearly enjoying this season. His media availability is no longer fraught with health questions or concern. He no longer has to address limitations. Now, he gets to address silly questions from Pittsburgh Hockey Now about winning an award for which he’s only been a finalist one time.
I think he’ll take that trade every day of the week. But cmon, a tuxedo and a speech in Vegas would be pretty cool, right?
“I mean, individual recognition is always cool but the big award is the Stanley Cup,” he said earnestly. “That’s what is most important.”
At points last season, Letang reached new depths in his plus-minus category, dipping below minus-20. The playoff scene in Philadelphia last season after Letang’s late penalty cost the Penguins but he vehemently argued stands out. In the locker room, his voice was quiet. He shuffled his feet and looked at the floor before conceding the refs made the right call.
He was a bit broken last season. Physically and, by the end, mentally. And so his offseason training was hugely important for this season.
“I didn’t take any break (after last season),” said Letang. “I went right into training and keep building back up. Just improve my confidence and being in better shape than I ever have.”
Maturity and adversity seem to have dulled Letang’s interest in such individual things. A couple more Stanley Cup championships help, too. And so it is with that lack of quest that Letang is probably having his finest season.
Letang has greatly reduced his turnover numbers in part because he isn’t trying too hard. He’s not pressing into the zone or making high-risk plays. He’s good enough not to foolishly gamble.
Right now, the best bet on Letang is that he’ll finally get that league-wide recognition that a player with his talents should get but he has always been denied. Those great players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have carried the team for years, but Letang has been a crucial piece and has long been part of the core. And now that the Penguins defense is sub-par without Justin Schultz, Letang has to carry it.
And it seems increasingly possible he’ll also be carrying something else in Vegas.