Letang's Comfort, Confidence Resulting In a Strong Start
Kris Letang has gotten off to an incredible start this season, and everyone’s noticing.
A total of 115,862 fans have taken the initiative to add the 23-year-old defenseman’s name on the ballot for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. That’s good for the third-highest total among write-in candidates and fourth overall among blueliners.
“It means a lot,” Letang said of the recognition he’s been given. “I know we have the greatest fans in hockey in Pittsburgh. Just to have them on your side and pushing on your back, it’s big. You feel very comfortable.”
Letang is tied for second in scoring among NHL defensemen with 23 points (5G-18A). He also ranks second in team scoring behind captain Sidney Crosby and owns a plus-12 rating, tied for seventh in the league.
What’s impressive about the numbers Letang is putting up is that he’s getting them while being used as a No. 1-shutdown defenseman against other teams’ top lines. What’s scary is that he still has plenty of untapped potential.
“The biggest thing you notice is just how talented he is, how much skill he has, how good of a player he is,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “And still you see the potential, he can even be better. He’s having a good year and is still recognizing certain situations when he can take chances and when he can’t. He’s been fun to watch, and he’s only going to get better.”
Last season, it took Letang 73 games to record 23 points (3G-20A). He’s already tied that mark just 26 games in, and his defense partner Brooks Orpik says Letang’s points have been coming when he focuses on making the smart play first.
A prime example of this came in Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Nov. 27. Letang jumpstarted the second goal when he laid a big hit on Calgary’s Olli Jokinen in the corner to separate him from the puck and proceeded to make a heads-up pass to Chris Kunitz, who led a scoring rush.
“I think when he plays his best his mindset going into games is to defend well,” Orpik said. “I think if he concentrates on playing defense, his offensive game just kind of comes to him naturally ... He’s definitely made a lot of strides this year with that. He’d probably tell you he still has a long way to go.”
Letang’s confidence and consistency didn’t happen overnight. He’s always had the skills, but admitted that it took awhile before he felt truly settled in the professional ranks.
After spending three seasons with the Val d’Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he posted 152 points (52G-100A) in 170 career games, Letang played just 10 contests with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting called up for what would be a permanent stay with the Penguins in 2007-08.
He’s been a mainstay on Pittsburgh’s blue line ever since, but his breakout year has come as a result of blending his talent with the pace of the game.
“In your first year, it’s a work-in-progress,” he said. “You try to learn defensively how to play the game, because when you switch from juniors to the NHL, there’s a big gap and you need to learn a lot of things. To play really good in the defensive zone, I think it’s the biggest step in the NHL. I think doing that transition and now being more comfortable everywhere on the ice maybe is all just happening at the same time.”
And the Penguins are glad that it did.
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