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Kingerski: Time to Adjust Kris Letang’s Ice Time, Penguins Role

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Pittsburgh Penguins Kris Letang

Kris Letang has been a stalwart for the Pittsburgh Penguins team and organization. He is one of three remaining “originals” who have spent their entire career in Pittsburgh, starred on the biggest stages, and won three Stanley Cups.

First, are we good on that part? Respect can be quickly forgotten when a player becomes a target.

However, all of those accomplishments and carrying some substandard bluelines for years means there is a lot of hockey and a lot of minutes on Letang’s legs. There is a lot of mileage on those tires, and the “car” doesn’t seem to be handling quite as well as it once did. 

Letang has been pedestrian this season. Perhaps it’s time to lessen Letang’s burden to maximize the output. The future of the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line is here, or at least pieces of it. It’s time to rely on it, for better and worse.

PHN asked Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Tuesday night if he could envision a scenario in which the Penguins’ second pairing, currently comprised of Mike Matheson and John Marino, took more minutes and responsibility.

And, Sullivan answered yes.

“We’re starting a stretch here, where we’re going to play eight games in 15 days. We’re going to play a lot of hockey,” Sullivan began. “It’s going to be essential that we have guys step up, play more minutes, and we spread the workload a little bit.

Letang hasn’t averaged under 24 minutes per game since 2009-10. Since then, he’s averaged under 25 minutes just once. Former GM Jim Rutherford called him “the straw that stirs the drink.” He has been both the Penguins blueline star and simultaneously their workhouse.

The current social media pig pile notwithstanding (Man, some of you get a target and obsess on it), Letang has earned the right to be one of the protected few.

However, that doesn’t mean head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant coach Todd Reirden should dump the biggest minutes and burdens on Letang.

At 33-years-old, with limited ramp-up to the season for more experienced bodies to get in top shape, the Penguins have options to lessen Letang’s ice time, which could conceivably allow a less-taxed Letang to play at full speed with fewer bumps, bruises, and demands of the 2020-21 NHL season.

Letang will turn 34 later this season.

Let’s be brutally honest. Letang doesn’t look like the same dynamic defenseman. Compared to P-O Joseph and Mike Matheson, Letang looks slower. Compared to the game, he also looks slower. He’s not racing past opponents. He no longer looks like the hot rod on the showroom floor.

This season has not been a banner year for Letang, who has received Norris Trophy consideration in each of the last two seasons (6th in 2018-19, 17th in 2019-20).

Yet, he’s the primary Pittsburgh Penguins penalty killer, power-play quarterback, and top-pairing defenseman. The workload has not yielded results.

This season, Letang has seven assists in 13 games. His giveaway rate is within standard norms (14 in 13 games), but he has only two takeaways. Two? Over the course of a season, Kris Letang usually averages somewhere between .6 and .9 takeaways per game. The lack of intercepts points to a lot of things, and none of them good.

“I think it’s going to be important for us to (spread the workload) to be competitive, game in and game out. So, we need guys to step up and share the load back there.” 

Perhaps that effort is already underway. In the first period on Tuesday night, John Marino and Mike Matheson played 5:49 of 5v5 hockey. Letang and his defensive partner P-O Joseph played just 5:01.

Because of the self-inflicted wounds in the second period, the Penguins were shorthanded for eight minutes, which somewhat skewed the ice time stat on Tuesday. Overall, Matheson and Marino played more even-strength minutes.

Especially Matheson has been on his game. The newly acquired defenseman had graded well over the past four games since returning from an extended injury absence. He began his return in a low-pressure third pairing role, but was quickly up to the second pair as he skated with the puck, dished it quickly, and–get this–got shots on net.

“Moving forward, I would envision us trying to spread the workload a little bit so that we can stay competitive,” Sullivan concluded.

And in another good sign, Matheson has ONE turnover in six games this season. Matheson had a jaw-dropping 135 in 2018-19 and 54 in 59 games last season.

Also, Matheson would be around through 2026 on a hefty contract with a $4.8 million AAV.

Unfortunately, Marino and Matheson have a combined three assists and no goals. In five games, Matheson has just one point. However, there is a flip side to being elevated to top-pairing status. In addition to increased defensive responsibilities, the pair would see increased ice with the Sidney Crosby line, which is the only line consistently producing offense.

Look, in ordinary times advocating Mike Matheson and John Marino take top-pair minutes would be a little bit loony tunes. But they’ve performed extremely well so far. Cody Ceci has taken big minutes throughout his NHL career, so the Penguins third pair can also handle more responsibility.

Kris Letang — All Things?

P-O Jospeh is proving he’s NHL ready. His worst games were beside Letang, and that could well be a bad mixture of styles, instead of Joseph regressing. But, as a third pair defenseman with Cody Ceci, coaches can determine if Joseph-Ceci is part of the equation which also lessens the burden on Letang.

Ceci is also proving to be a solid acquisition as he becomes more comfortable in his new surroundings.

Tuesday night, Sullivan said the Penguins would have to spread the workload to remain competitive. Does that mean Marino and Matheson will get more minutes and Letang less?

It certainly should mean that. And if the Penguins must rely on Kris Letang for all things, GM Ron Hextall has work to do. Letang’s contributions to the team, short and long term, should not be discarded. For the good of the team, he has played a primary role, played through injuries, and been outstanding.

Just as now, for the good of the team, that role should be adjusted. That doesn’t mean traded or shipped out of town immediately. It means adjusted downward. Letang is still a top-four defenseman in the NHL.

But, the future of the Penguins blue line is here, and it’s time for the transition to begin.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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David Heyl
David Heyl
8 months ago

While Letangs’name is on the Cup 3 times, the last one he was a spectator. Question to be asked will ego stand in the way for your stated strategy? He should not b on the #1 PP. Father Time is undefeated!

Hentryk
Hentryk
8 months ago
Reply to  David Heyl

Letang has always said he gets better with more ice time. Time for him to wake up and see that all those minutes aren’t a bonus anymore. He plays a high risk high reward style, but of late it is mostly the risk that sticks out. Ceci and Matheson can be good additions Joseph is proving to be what the Penguins hoped he can be and Marino seems to be playing his way through a rough start. To me Pettersson should be used as trade material to add some forward help, the depth guys added in the offseason are mostly… Read more »

Eric Bouchard
Eric Bouchard
8 months ago

Letang decision making is SO OFF.
I dont think that playing with PO right now is a good thing For Kris. (he need a real top 2 Left D to play with him) and not a good thing for PO either.

He looked not that great the last couple of games.

Maybe the easier way to cut playing minutes for Kris would be, less or no more PK minutes?

Jeff Arnold
Jeff Arnold
8 months ago

Agree with this article. While I disagree with posters that want to trade or bench Letang, at some point we need to transition from the Letang-led blue line to someone else — it’s going to happen eventually, why not do it while he’s still playing relatively well and can help the transition? I’d hope that’s the route the team takes with Crosby when the time comes.

Chase Ranson
Chase Ranson
8 months ago

He has no physical presence and is a turn over machine looks like a confused rookie at times less ice time might work

Ricardo58
Ricardo58
8 months ago

I’m surprised so few comments about this topic. I’ve consistently been a fan of 58’s offensive abilities, but not his defensive game. Since the Pens won the cup without his services, I’ve been a proponent of trading him to maximize his trade value. Now I don’t advocate that thought as much as I don’t think 58 would bring much in return other than clearing his cap space of 7.25 million. Honestly, what team would take him on and pay full boat. The Pens would have to retain salary IMO. Endure his salary not matching his play for another full season… Read more »

Dr. von. Yinzer
Dr. von. Yinzer
8 months ago

Letang has been an excellent player for Pittsburgh for a long time. He has long been a fan target, but most of those criticisms have always been either meritless or overstated. Like Geno, Letang is clearly regressing with age, but who’s going to take those minutes? John Marino has not been excellent this year. I know people keep saying that but that’s just not true. Mike Matheson has been just OK. He can skate like the wind and that is certainly exciting, but he’s I am not willing to bench 58 to play him more. I’m excited about what we… Read more »

Steve
Steve
8 months ago

Remember that P.O. Joseph and Brian Dumoulin play two totally different styles. Asking Letang to not change the way he lplays because he’s paired with P.O. is ridiculous. Letang needs a defensive partner to compliment his abilities. Having P.O. with a similar setup may be advantageous also. P.O. with Ceci or Ruhwedel when Dumo gets healthy. Trade Petterson if someone will take him.

D1VE is Dumb
D1VE is Dumb
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve

I think they would be lucky to get a 2nd round pick for Pettersson, but the cap savings would be huge.

Last edited 8 months ago by SD Pens Fan
Jonny
Jonny
8 months ago

This article is about 3 seasons too late. Unfortunately, he never looked the same after his neck injury. From what I saw it appeared that his decision making never caught up to the speed of the game, and the hesitation made him pay time and time again.

Crosby32746@yahoo.com
Crosby32746@yahoo.com
8 months ago

Kinger is en fuego!!! Hoping it will happen but not overly hopeful that Sullivan will take this to the appropriate degree.

concerned penguin fan
concerned penguin fan
8 months ago

most of the true penguin fans have seen the good and the bad with tanger. The skates have certainly dulled and he can’t use his wheels to cover for his bad pinches and decisions like he used to. The local media and penguin brass cover for him 24/7 but the real penguin fans realize they should have traded him 2-3 years ago now pens wouldn’t get much for him.

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[…] Kris Letang isn’t what he once was and the Penguins may need to adjust his role. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

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