Kris Letang has been nothing less than the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense corps for more than a decade.
And that might be understating it.
He almost invariably played more than anyone else on that unit, and generally accomplished more than anyone else, too.
Whether Letang lost his place atop the Penguins’ depth chart on defense when Erik Karlsson arrived is reasonable to debate, but there’s no question that his role seems to be evolving.
He’s still on the ice an awful lot — Letang is averaging 24 minutes, 35 seconds of playing time per game, just 16 fewer seconds than last season and only 20 fewer than Karlsson’s team-leading total — but those aren’t distributed the way they have been in the past.
Letang relinquished his place on the No. 1 power play to Karlsson, and that has led to a predictable plunge in his workload while the Penguins have an extra man. He’s averaging just 65 seconds of power-play time, which ranks seventh on the team and is down from three minutes, 37 seconds in 2022-23.
Conversely, Letang has become much more involved when the Penguins are killing penalties.
After averaging only 56 seconds of shorthanded ice time last season, he’s logged an average of two minutes, 22 seconds in the first seven games of 2023-24.
Although penalty-killing is more physically demanding than working the power play, the extra duty in that role doesn’t seem to be having a negative impact on Letang’s overall performance, even though he’s 36.
He’s been effective and efficient all over the ice, and actually seems to have benefitted from Karlsson’s presence, rather than resenting the impact on how Karlsson has affected the way he’s used.
If he can stay healthy — always a concern, since Letang has made it into more than 65 games just once in the past five seasons — Letang figures to be a major factor in whatever the Penguins are able to accomplish between now and mid-April. And, perhaps, beyond.
Don’t draw conclusions
The Penguins are the NHL’s second-best team on faceoffs this season, winning 55.7 percent of their draws.
Although there’s no downside to having that kind of success — after all, it should be easier to score goals and win games when you have the puck more than the other guys — it might not be as linked to victory as one suspects.
It turns out that the only team ahead of the Penguins in the rankings is San Jose, which has won 55.8 percent of its faceoffs — but none of its first seven games (0-6-1).
As usual, Sidney Crosby has handled the most draws of any Pittsburgh Penguins player, and he also has fared better than any of his teammates.
He’s taken 155 — Lars Eller is second, with 92 — and won 61.3 percent of them (95-60).
Crosby has done some of his best work in the offensive zone (56-19) and on the power play (18-7).
Finding the positives
Plus-minus ratings are, at best, a superficial statistic.
But while it’s not necessarily wise to put undue emphasis on that stat, it can be somewhat revealing, at least in a big-picture sense.
Consider that when Boston won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2022-23, only seven of the 34 forwards and defensemen who played for the Bruins finished with a negative plus-minus. No one finished worse than minus-3, and only two guys who appeared in more than eight games, forward Garnet Hathaway and defenseman Jakub Zboril, ended up on the dark side of Even.
Both were minus-1.
Conversely, defenseman Scott Harrington — remember him? — was the only player for Anaheim, which finished at the bottom of the overall standings, to get through the season with a positive rating. He finished plus-1, perhaps because he dressed for just 17 games.
Since this season is just beginning to move out of its embryonic stages, it would be folly to attach any real significance to plus-minuses.
Nonetheless, it was noteworthy that, going into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game against Colorado Thursday, only six of the 20 skaters who had been used in their first half-dozen games were on the plus side of that stat.
In the wake of their 4-0 victory against the Avalanche, that total has risen to 10.
Overall, the range of plus-minuses on the team goes from Marcus Pettersson’s plus-3 to P.O Joseph’s minus-3.