Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang joked Tuesday that he had to top teammate Evgeni Malkin. The two veteran core players for the club have been asked days apart how long they want to continue to play in the NHL. After Malkin said three to four years on Friday, Letang said five.
However, Letang, a freakishly fit 34-year-old, was quick to make sure no one holds him to five years.
“I don’t have a timeline, to be honest,” he said. “In my mind it’s five (years), but it could be more. But if I have to put a number on it, it’s five.”
In a meeting with reporters after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Letang offered a range of introspective thoughts on the state of the Penguins, his contract and his season.
The Penguins have won eight straight games going into a home date Wednesday with the St. Louis Blues, and they have yet to field to a fully healthy lineup, thanks to injuries and COVID-19. They are getting close – in particular, Malkin seems close to making his season debut after June knee surgery.
So what kind of wave can the Penguins ride off this momentum?
Letang first offered a bit of caution to his answer.
“Last year, we had the feeling that we had the team” to contend for the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup title, he said. That team, however, fell in the first round of the playoffs for the third time in a row.
“I think this year with all the adversity and everything we’ve faced, we don’t even know our potential. We haven’t had a full lineup yet. … I cannot really give you a sense, but I can tell you right now that we have a lot of character in that room. A lot of guys stepped up, played bigger roles, did really well.”
Letang’s role as the team’s top defenseman has long been set, but his place with the team is a little murky because his contract is up after this season.
He will become an unrestricted free agent unless he re-signs with the Penguins, something that can happen at any time — but apparently not something that is front-burner for him.
“I don’t really think about (that) right now,” he said, sidestepping a direct question about whether there have been any talks toward a new deal and whether he might be entering his final months with the club.
“My goal every time I enter (a season) is to win another Stanley Cup. That’s what I focus on. The rest can take care of itself.”
Letang ranks third on the team with 22 points despite an earlier bout of COVID-19, but he was quick to point out that 21 of those are assists. “I wish I could score a little bit more. I haven’t hit the back of the net a lot.
“But overall me and (defense partner Brian Dumoulin) are playing some good hockey.”
He always has been and remains a big-minutes eater, playing in all situations. He’s averaging a team-most 25:58 of ice time this season.
And your eyes aren’t deceiving you – Letang has put an emphasis on being more responsible even while his strong skating and elevated two-way game sometimes lead to turnovers or opportunities for opponents.
He attributes his improvement in that area to “the experience, I guess, getting older. I just thought (about) that talking to Todd (Reirden, the assistant who oversees the defense) and trying to become a guy that’s reliable at any given moment.
“I face usually the top two or three lines during the games. The guys are better and better offensively; they have more skill and speed. So turnovers can be costly more now than ever.”
Letang added that he’s more cautious about when and how to join the offense.
“At the end of the night, if you’re reaching 26, 27 minutes, you want to be able to perform (well) every one of those.”
And do that for, oh, five more years or longer.