Kris Letang was in the Norris Trophy conversation at mid-season and scored nearly a point per game in the 2018-19 regular season. Injuries in the second half derailed a hugely important bounce-back regular season but the Penguins defenseman didn’t close strong. Instead, Letang made a couple of high profile mistakes which contributed to the Pittsburgh Penguins early playoff demise.
Letang’s season will be remembered as much for the bounce-back as it will the weight applied to the Round One sweep by the New York Islanders. The two are unfortunately inseparably linked.
In essence, Letang scored an A on every test, every homework assignment and even class participation but then bombed the final. Penguins fans understandably are coarse over the end. It was an ignominious defeat which shouldn’t have happened at all. As a core player, Letang will always shoulder some of the blame. He was a direct contributor to the Game 1 loss in which he led a General Custer type charge against the teeth of the New York defense and turned the puck over which led to the game-winning goal in OT.
Had he not done that or committed other egregious mistakes in the playoffs, his season grade would be an A+. But you can’t fail the final.
Kris Letang Report Card: B+
This outlet was one of the first to push the idea of Letang for Norris. He deserved it. From the early days of training camp, PHN noticed the different Letang. His speed was back. His mobility and dynamic ice presence were immediately noticeable, and we made some bold predictions which came true.
The grade is based on the stand-out regular season, superior point production and advanced statistics but he was graded against Norris Trophy type defensemen not against NHL defensemen as a whole. This grade was a slight struggle in that regard as he was well above most defensemen in the league.
Of the many positives, when the Penguins were struggling for offense (and wins) in the first half of the season, Letang joined Sidney Crosby in providing tallies for the scoreboard. If not for the spate of shorthanded goals, Letang’s plus/minus stat would have lept off the page as a career high.
Letang deservedly made the All-Star game.
The 31-year-old defenseman was the Penguins primary puck lugger and his ability to push the play through the neutral zone helped the Penguins immeasurably. For most of the season, Letang gambled and won. The power play issues didn’t tar Letang’s season as the forwards grabbed popcorn for the show but forgot the other team could score, too. Ahem, Phil Kessel.
At 5v5, when Letang was on the ice the Penguins scored a fantastic 61% of the goals. The Penguins also earned 55% of the scoring chances and 54% of the high danger chances.
However, playoff series also count in the full season grade. And Letang was shaky in Round One. He tried to do too much and that resulted in mistakes and losses. Had Letang been stellar in Round One, his grade would be an A+. The playoff series dropped him a full letter grade–that’s what happens when you chuck the final exam.
Letang’s turnover rate was also a problem. He coughed the puck up 76 times in 65 games. That rate stands with last year which was a career worst. In the playoffs, Letang had seven turnovers in just four games including the costly Game 1 mistake. Letang was also caught out of position as New York waited to pounce on Penguins mistakes.
It was an ugly end to Letang’s season and erased much of the good feelings and optimism. The Penguins management is currently deciding who bought into the system and the consequences for those who thumbed their nose at head coach Mike Sullivan’s demands. Letang has always had a license to freelance and create. That is his game and the Penguins coaches have not tried to curtail those aspects.
When asked if he’ll become more conservative, Letang’s sarcasm spoke volumes, “Make no mistakes? I’ll try that.”
Having watched Letang’s demeanor and progression closely over the past couple of years, it appears the turnovers got to him. The questions did, too. Last season, he knew he was struggling and answered a few of Pittsburgh Hockey Now’s tough questions very earnestly. Obviously, he didn’t keep that tone at the end of this season (though I found it funny. More guys should let rip with what they’re thinking and we should be accepting of it).
Letang’s heightened turnover trend is as much about trying to dominate the game as he once did as they are about the ever-increasing structured NHL game.
That friction of the changing game confronted Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Letang had the best season of the three, by far but he too will have to adjust. It’s unfortunate for the player that a flailing playoff series undid an A+ regular season.
But the grade stands, B+.