By now, the story has been well-publicized in print and broadcast media that Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang told teammates that he expects to be traded. Still, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford has been far more reserved about the possibility of a shakeup-style Penguins trade.
Rutherford hasn’t closed the door, but he hasn’t put Letang on the NHL trade block in the same way the Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin seems to be dangling Matt Dumba. League sources told PHN about an interested Western Conference team, but the team would have to complete significant changes before making a serious offer.
Otherwise, it’s been quiet on the Penguins trade talks regarding their core players.
Letang, 33, has two more seasons under his current deal, which counts $7.25 million against the salary cap. Before NHL free agency begins on Oct. 9, Letang is current the 15th highest-paid defenseman.
We make that note because there is one primary question about Kris Letang and any Penguins trade talk. Is he still an elite defenseman?
The Pittsburgh Penguins organization is loyal to Letang, and there is a desire to have No. 58 retire in the same uniform he’s worn since he was a third-round pick in the same 2005 draft in which the Penguins selected Sidney Crosby.
But winning is more important.
Before Rutherford could genuinely entertain the Penguins trade, which would remove 1/3 of the remaining core, could the Penguins get good value to become a better team?
First, we’ll compare Letang’s progression over the last two seasons, as a pair with Brian Dumoulin (and ONLY Brian Dumoulin) against the rest of the league pairings. All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com
This season, Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang ranked sixth in Corsi ranking (58%), which is elite, and 16th in scoring chances (57%). However, the Penguins’ top pairing badly slipped in the percentage of goals-for (61st), and the pair’s on-ice save percentage was awful (.860). They ranked 155th in on-ice save percentage.
Letang had lower baseline stats in 2019-20, too. He had only 44 points in 61 games, compared to 56 points in 65 games last season.
That mixed bag of stats is a contrast of Dumoulin-Letang in 2018-19.
Last season, the Penguins top pairing was a solid 29th in Corsi (54%) but were nearly top-shelf in the goals-for percentage. They ranked 10th with 64%. They also ranked 20th in scoring-chance percentage and an OK 54th in on-ice save percentage.
Of course, the Penguins had goalie issues in 2018-19.
We would use a three-year curve, but 2017-18 was Letang’s recovery season after he suffered a severe neck injury in 2016-17 and had surgery. In addition, we also can’t use a four-year comparison because of Letang’s shortened 2016-17.
But numbers are numbers. I could spin them to make Letang the next Ray Bourque, or twirl them to make Letang look like Rob Scuderi in his final season.
This season, the numbers and the eye test align.
Is Kris Letang still elite? He didn’t have an elite season. The numbers and the eye test agree that Letang did many things right. He is still a straw that stirs the Penguins drink, but he was not as aggressive getting into the scoring zones.
He didn’t add as much offensive pressure.
At 33-years-old, is 2019-20 the beginning of the decline, or was it a down year? We cannot answer that question because the answer is unknowable. The liklihood is that Letang will settle into slightly lesser production for a few seasons because he is in his mid-30s. Age has a way of doing that to players, and Letang has otherwise taken a pounding in the last five-to-seven years.
Letang is the 15th highest-paid defenseman in the game, and that seems to be spot on. He was a bargain when he was chasing Norris Trophies, and in the next couple of seasons, he will be fairly paid. His salary puts him in proper league with Ryan McDonagh, Mark Giordano, Aaron Ekblad, and Ryan Suter.
Torey Krug and Alex Pietrangelo will probably move Letang’s salary rank down a couple of spots, and that is appropriate, too.
Penguins Trade Analysis
Should the Penguins trade Kris Letang, they would need to get a return which made them better immediately. It’s hard to see Rutherford engineering such a deal. The Penguins top-six is set, and trading Letang would create a top-pairing hole, which would need to be filled with a player making about the same or even less money.
Good luck with that.
Cutting past the subtle inference, the Penguins trade would be a matter of shakeup and locker room rearranging, and unlikely about getting better on paper.
Is Letang elite? The answer actually doesn’t matter as much as his fit in the game and his fit with the Penguins. And that is why a Penguins trade involving Letang is unlikely unless an interested party decides to overpay just as Rutherford did for Kasperi Kapanen last month.