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.
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.