The Pittsburgh Penguins generational core, which quickly made it to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final and won the 2009 Stanley Cup, is down to three players and two polarizing figures. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby long ago graduated from jeers and doubts of the hometown fans, while Evgeni Malkin is doing his best to put them to rest. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is another matter.
Letang’s high risk, high reward style has long been the bane of existence for some. Head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant coach Jacques Martin have been able to harness the production and capitalize on defense partner Brian Dumoulin’s ability to fit his game into Letang’s dynamic style.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, that pairing won’t be together for a few more weeks as Dumoulin continues his recovery from a sliced tendon suffered on Nov. 30.
Like most Penguins skaters, Letang also battled injuries in the figurative first half of the season. He played in 42 of the first 49 Penguins games but was perhaps not close to 100% healthy after he came back to the lineup in December. The team’s top defenseman has maintained a 25-minute ice time average while injuries to Brian Dumoulin and Justin Schult have depleted the Penguins blue line.
Kris Letang: B+
Letang had a strong start to the season, which continued his remarkable rebound year from the season prior. The defenseman had 11 points (4g, 7a) in his first 13 games. He was also a +7. In October, Letang surpassed 500 career points and scored a few highlight-reel goals.
Letang was similarly strong in November until injuries hit. He had five points (3g, 2a) in six games but then missed the rest of the month. Until that point, Letang and typical defense partner Dumoulin were on top of the game. Since Letang is a puck possession driver and offensive catalyst, his advanced stats from the rear are relevant.
While Letang and Dumoulin played together through November (just 15 games this season), the duo had a Corsi and scoring chance rate ,which hovered around 60%. Letang was again on the shortlist in the Norris Trophy conversation. Despite a shaky return from injury, Letang still posted 10 points (3g, 7a) in 12 games.
However, what doesn’t show up on the stats and the reason for the B+ instead of A or A+ were the December miscues. Missed assignments, turnovers, and sub-par play for a couple of weeks overshadowed his accomplishments.
And of course brought out the negativity of social media fandom, too.
After Dumoulin was injured on Nov. 30 against St. Louis, Letang was flipped to the left side to be paired with right-handed rookie surprise John Marino. More recently Letang returned to his natural side with steady, stay-home-defenseman Jack Johnson.
The Johnson pairing stuck, however, it hasn’t been good. Letang’s numbers with Johnson are underwater in puck possession and scoring chance rate (48%). Actually, that’s worse than not good. That’s bad. The numbers both fit in with and contribute to the Penguins lesser play since Jack Guentzel was injured on Dec. 31.
Letang also took six minor penalties in 11 January games. He took four in the previous three months combined.
Kris Letang Turnovers and Underlying Positives
Letang has adhered to head coach Mike Sullivan’s fervent wish to improve puck management but recent overtime games and power play turnovers have bubbled his giveaway rate to near career highs. Letang is currently on pace to exceed 90 turnovers this season. Of his rates, 43 have been at even strength (about 1 per game average) and eight have been on the power play.
He has also drawn only one penalty at 5v5 this season, which is by far his lowest pace in any full NHL season.
On the flip side, Letang is creating rebounds at even strength, which are creating offense. He has created 15 rebounds and his career-high is 20. That means he is hitting the net with smart, hard shots.
All stats courtesy of the player page on NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Johnson-Letang pairing is limiting to Letang’s numbers as Letang likes to freelance and Johnson has not been as quick to adapt as Dumoulin. One tidbit we’re going to explore in the coming week is the Marcus Pettersson-Letang pairing. There is a small statistical sample size we’re going to examine.
Until the Penguins make some changes to the blue line pairings, get healthy or make a deal (and the options are limited on all fronts), the Johnson-Letang pairing is probably going to exist for at least a few more weeks.
Letang is no longer on the Norris track, but his play and his production have been stellar. There will also be mistakes for a defenseman who plays against the opposition’s top lines and plays 25 minutes per game…and is tasked with driving offensive production, too. And apparently, there will always be a loud set of detractors.
This season, Letang has also surpassed 400 career assists and was the Metro Division All-Star team captain. It was his sixth All-Star appearance. Adding up all of the plusses and minuses of the “first half”, Kris Letang comes out well ahead. B+.