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.