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Molinari: Letang’s New Dimension, O’Connor’s Blunder



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang

Kris Letang changed during his recent time away from the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he missed five games after suffering a stroke in late November.

No surprise there. It makes sense that going through something of that nature would affect a person, especially when it’s the second time it has happened.

In Letang’s case, the change in question — the most conspicuous one, anyway — pertains to how he goes about his job.

And it’s been a good thing, for him and the team.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Kris Letang appears to be playing a more controlled, lower-risk game than he was previously.

The differences are subtle, and six games admittedly constitute a small sample size. Something that’s evident during such a relatively brief span is not guaranteed to develop into an enduring trend.

And while it might be entirely coincidental that this happened after he was out of the lineup for a bit, Letang’s game looks as if it has added an additional dimension of maturity.

His decision-making is improved, his offensive output has been maintained — he has one goal and three assists in those six games — and his overall execution just looks to be a bit more crisp.

For a player to return from a major medical event — to this layman, a stroke of any magnitude is a very big deal — as quickly as Letang did is remarkable.

To come back as what looks to be an even better version of himself almost defies belief.

Of course, adapting and evolving is a critical aspect of every player’s development, and that’s particularly true of younger ones who are trying to establish themselves at this level.

Guys like¬†Drew O’Connor, who got into his first NHL game since Nov. 5 when the Penguins lost to Carolina, 4-3, in overtime Thursday.


O’Connor took just six shifts, tying linemate Danton Heinen for the fewest on either team, and logged a game-low four minutes, 19 minutes of ice time.

And he might have been lucky to get that much.

Although O’Connor has the size (6 foot 3, 200 pounds) and skill to hold down a bottom-six job in the NHL, he risks sabotaging his chances of securing steady work in the NHL with things like the offensive-zone tripping minor he was assessed late in the first period of the Hurricanes game.

It would have been a bad penalty to take at any time and under any circumstances, but was made even worse because Carolina had just scored two goals in 17 seconds to take a 2-1 lead.

If the Hurricanes had scored a power-play goal while O’Connor was in the penalty box, the Pittsburgh Penguins might have been hard-pressed to get back into the game.

Fairly or otherwise, players trying to stick in the NHL have little margin for error, and O’Connor probably was fortunate to get the handful of shifts he received after his time in the penalty box.

To his credit, O’Connor recorded two hits during his limited time on the ice Thursday, because regularly playing the body is one of the things he can do to contribute to the team’s success and build the coaching staff’s confidence in him.

He just has to learn to avoid the unforced errors, like that tripping penalty, that prevent him from getting off the bench and proving what an asset he can be for the Pittsburgh Penguins.