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The Kris Letang Turnover Comparison and Context

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Kris Letang January 25
Kris Letang, January 25. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Turnovers were an albatross around the Pittsburgh Penguins for the entirety of the 2018-19 season. Three players coughed up, chucked up, gifted, and handed the puck to the opposition more than 70 times. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Each in their own way committed a spate of similar turnovers but Malkin and Kessel reached broken record status.

So, what about Letang?

His playoff turnovers have drawn scrutiny and some scorn but his regular season was one of his best. Letang notched 56 points in 65 games (16g, 40a) and for a time was in the Norris Trophy conversation.

Kris Letang committed 76 turnovers during the 2018-19 season while playing just 65 games for an average of 1.17 per game. On the surface that seems unsightly. I can feel Twitter responses forming. However, deeper into that number rests some context.

Letang played nearly 26 minutes per game and the Penguins system at times can be described as “Every man for himself,” mainly as a couple of veteran players ignored the warnings, demands, and pleadings of head coach Mike Sullivan.

Big name defensemen including Jeff Petry, Aaron Ekblad, Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, Keith Yandle, Ivan Provorov, Noah Hanifin, Jacob Trouba, Dmitri Orlov, John Klingberg, Nikita Zaitsev, Rasmus Dahlin, Josh Manson, and Erik Gustafsson all had more turnovers than Letang. Less offensive and more conservative blue liners Ron Hainsey, Duncan Keith, and Matt Niskanen had just a couple fewer giveaways than Letang.

Norris Trophy nominee Brent Burns committed a staggering 118 turnovers.

Letang’s giveaway/takeaway ratio was also in the red as he took away 63 pucks for a minus-13 rate. Compared to Burns’ minus-30 ratio, that’s great. However, compared to the other Norris Trophy candidates Mark Giordano in Calgary who committed 65 turnovers but had 73 takeaways (+8) and Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay who is stingy with only 32 giveaways and 50 takeaways (+18), Letang falls short.

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The Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford believe Letang to be a top-10 defenseman in the NHL. Without Letang for long stretches in the final six weeks, the Penguins style of play changed. They heeded the words of Sullivan but they also struggled to score goals. We’ve been over the pros and cons of that period, perhaps ad nauseam already.

For his part, Letang was surly when asked if he may adopt a more conservative style of play to limit the turnovers, in the future. His sarcastic comeback, “I’ll try that. Next year, I’ll try to make no mistakes at all,” on locker clean out day quickly went viral.

In a greater context, Letang doesn’t appear to commit a disproportionate number of turnovers, though his per game average is a tick above because he missed 17 games. And his takeaway ratio could improve.

However, Letang’s giveaway numbers have spiked in the past two seasons. Never before had the rearguard even committed 70 turnovers until the last two seasons when he committed 89 and 76 respectively, with higher per game averages than ever before, too.

The subtle shift indicates Letang is also facing a changing NHL game. The eye test clearly shows his speed advantage has been diminished and teams are less respectful of his puck skills. In other words, teams like the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals are pressuring Letang, who in turn feels more pressure to make something happen.

That’s a bad combination.

Except for Sidney Crosby who continually adapts, the Penguins core had a knockdown, drag-out conversation with Father Time this season. The problem became those players not listening to their coach or Father Time. The game has evolved and Letang is physically well suited to its speed and physical direction but not if he clings to the past.

The rise in turnovers was particularly harmful as Letang forced the issue against ever patient New York in Round One. New York defenseman Johnny Boychuk admitted his team banked the Penguins would get impatient and give them turnovers. He was right.

So, the final verdict on Letang’s regular season turnover issue: They were too high for a player that good but not out of line with his contemporaries. They were out of line with elite defensemen and the group to which Letang is talented enough to belong.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Frank

    April 24, 2019 at 9:51 am

    I suppose you can do all the analysis you want, but the simple truth is Letang is who he is. I am guessing that even if he was open to changing . . which he clearly is not . .. the changes might make the turnover rate even worse. The team is either going to have to accept him for what he is . . .or they should move him out. If the interest is making him a defensive player then do your best to package him up and move him and something else for two guys who are just that. You are not going to turn a race horse into a Clydesdale. So go find some Clydesdales.

    On that note . . . and as hard as it is to say out loud . .. . having talent like Crosby/Malkin/Kessel/Letang on the team in a twisted way becomes a problem with each year. The team is flying the “closing window” theory and as a result is in a never ending search for guys who fit in with that group. The hitch is “that group” is not who they were and somehow there is a belief that if GMJR can find the right guys so we can revisit Stanley Cup parades. But with each passing year the core becomes less than what they were in the prior year.

    I appreciate the hope that there is another Cup out there for them, but after having watched other series move along I just do not see the Penguins. . . even with the core players. . . being able to hang in for series after series and coming out a winner. It is impossible to ignore the difficulty of what Rutherford faces . .. contracts . .. cap . . . trade restrictions . .. finding a willing partner . . . finding the right guy . . . and of course satisfying the fan base that expects winners and pays dearly at the box office . .. . but my instincts tell me that unless there is a willingness for short term pain in return for long term gain hockey fans are in for some bitter nights at PPG for quite some time.

  2. Doug

    April 24, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Excellent post, Frank. The ’16 team was an unstoppable force, while the win in ’17 was almost miraculous, due to lots of grit and determination. The core players have lost the hunger they had then, except maybe for Crosby, who didn’t seem overly interested during the Islanders series.

    Kessel’s negatives in particular outweigh his positives. He’s also uncoachable, the main reason the team as a whole was so lazy and undisciplined this past season. He has to go in order for Mike Sullivan to regain control over the team. Letang and Malkin, well, GMJR will have to figure out what’s best, but I certainly won’t be upset if either or both are traded. The Penguins can no longer afford players who lack “situational awareness” and discipline.

    • JICS

      April 25, 2019 at 3:35 pm

      Would you be overly interested in killing yourself, with Simon for a winger, and a team that wasn’t playing worth a hang – obviously management (GM and Coach) aren’t on the same page regardless of their denials of that. Sully has his favs and forces them on other players, which is not fair, and will likely end up costing him his own job. It has probably already cost him (and them) 2 Cups. He also has forced the GM to get rid of some players that they should still have (and need) on the roster.

  3. Eric Bouchard

    April 24, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Its not the numerous of Turnovers he does. Its the timing and the poor decisions to pinch at the wrong moment that people tend to aknowledge. And he should be better….And he should KNOW better. But often, Kris, or Geno, in the heat of a mment, panic, or angry, they tend to loose it a little. Like the brain turns off for a couple of seconds….and each time its costly.

  4. Matt

    April 24, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    If Letang stays, he absolutely, positively cannot average 25-plus minutes per game. Twenty-one minutes at his age (32) would plenty. Have to pick spots for him. Result: fewer health issues and mindless mistakes.

  5. Edgar

    April 24, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    That’s how I view it as well, Eric. But, I’m told I’m often told I’m just plain wrong about that.

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