Penguins 2011-2012 Preview: Kris Letang, 24, is growing as a player and mentor
They aren't exactly clones, Kris Letang and Joseph Morrow.
Letang is 24, grew up speaking French and shoots right-handed.
Morrow is 18, has English as his first language and shoots left.
Pretty significant differences.
But they also have a lot more than just a position and an employer in common.
That is why Letang took it upon himself during the Penguins' training camp to serve as Morrow's mentor.
"When I look at him, I see myself," Letang said. "He's a smooth skater who likes to shoot, likes to join the play."
Letang's usual defense partner, Brooks Orpik, missed much of the preseason while dealing with the lingering effects of abdominal surgery, and Morrow often was plugged into Orpik's spot.
Those two meshed nicely -- that was most evident in a preseason game when they deftly executed a set play during a power-play faceoff, swapping sides of the ice during a sequence that culminated with Morrow hammering a Letang feed into the net -- and just might spend a lot of time together in coming seasons.
For Morrow, Letang's tutelage has been an invaluable asset. For Letang, it is mostly payback for how veterans helped him during his formative years.
But it also underscores how Letang, even at a relatively early stage in his pro career, is taking on more of a leadership role.
"There are many things I had to learn before I got to where I am right now," he said. "To have somebody who talks you and takes care of you [is important].
"Back in the day, it was [Sergei Gonchar], and Alain Nasreddine when I was at my first camp. There were tons of guys who talked to me. [Orpik] talked to me.
"I had a responsibility, and obviously I had a chance to play with [Morrow during the preseason]. I think it was important that I tell him the way we play and a few things that will be different at the NHL level.
"Obviously, I want to take more [of a role] in the room, be a bigger leader. But people don't really know me as a guy who talks a lot. I'm a guy who's going to go on the ice and be an example. But that's something I've tried to do a little more, talk to the young guys and try to maybe lead the way."
Work in progress
The pro career of Morrow, a first-round draft choice in June, is in its embryonic stages.
While Letang is much further along, he, too, remains a work-in-progress.
That was evident during the 2010-11 season, when Letang broke out during the first half, then all but broke down during the second.
By the time he had been voted as an All-Star Game starter, Letang had made himself a fixture in discussions about Norris Trophy candidates. By the time the Norris voting was conducted, he barely qualified as an afterthought on most ballots, finishing sixth.
Deservedly so, because he sputtered almost as much during the final months of the season as he had sparkled in the early ones.
Statistics can be misleading, but these numbers leave little room for interpretation: Letang had six goals, 30 assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-23 in his first 41 games, two goals, four assists and a minus-3 in his last 41.
"We certainly saw the best of Kris Letang, at this point of his career, in the first half of the year," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense.
"We set out, at the start of the season, with some goals and by Christmas, he had surpassed some of those goals. Certainly the second half was not what we wanted to have from him."
Letang, though, insists his second half was not a write-off, even though his offensive output dipped precipitously.
"I didn't have the best end of the season, but I think I still improved things in my zone," he said. "We played a lot of one-goal games, and I think I played in a lot of six-on-five or five-on-six [situations] at the end of the game. I still learned a lot of things.
"On the offensive side, I was trying to do too much. That's why I wasn't getting the points I was getting [earlier]. But on the defensive side, I was improving my game."
That's not necessarily exactly how Reirden saw it.
"With Kris, it's not always getting caught up in the numbers offensively," he said. "It's about his ability to defend and play within our structure, and that's something he was able to do a little bit better in the first half of the year than at the end."
Full season challenge
The Penguins' seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in Round 1 of the playoffs was a searing disappointment for Letang and his teammates.
At the same time, after going to two Stanley Cup finals and the second round in the previous three seasons, being finished by May came with a minor consolation prize.
For while no team craves early elimination -- the whole idea, after all, is to win as much as possible -- an extended break allows more time for extra rest and workouts, and Letang believes those will be reflected in his game this fall.
"I had a long offseason," he said. "I had time to get back in shape, and I trained really hard to be able to spend a good amount of time on the ice.
"Quality minutes, instead of ... sometimes, you see guys who play 30 minutes a game, but in those 30 minutes, sometimes they're coasting.
"I want to give my 100 percent the whole shift. I don't want to do any coasting. I trained this summer to be able to go at a full pace for the full amount of time I spend on the ice."
Do that for 82 games while performing at the level he routinely reached in the first half of 2010-11, and Letang likely will find himself in another All-Star Game. And another round of Norris conversations.
That's a lot to expect of a player his age, at that position, but Letang has proven capable of exceeding the most grandiose expectations. At least for a while.
"He's a player who's young, in terms of the responsibilities we expect from him on a top team in the league," Reirden said. "We're still in the middle of a process here.
"If we look at how things are trending, in terms of his career, we're trending in the right direction. There definitely is the possibility of both the player and our staff to put him in position to grow."
"The first half of the year definitely warranted the praise and recognition he was getting around the league. Now, the challenge is to try to get that for a full season."
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