Could it be that Kris Letang is flying under the radar a little bit – right here in Pittsburgh? Let me explain the question. In the Penguins’ dressing room, among the coaches and in the front office, they know exactly what they have in the 24-year-old Montreal native.
Letang is an incredibly strong skater, an underrated hitter, an athletic defenseman with very good hands, great stamina and good vision.
When his previous contract expired, they gave Letang a raise of more than 500 percent. After he missed 21 games with a concussion, Dan Bylsma “eased” him back into the lineup last month with a team-high 24 minutes of ice time in New York against the Rangers, then the best club in the NHL. He had an assist, saved a goal by diving to get his stick on a shot headed for an empty net and had three hits in a 4-1 victory.
The next game, at home against Montreal, he came out of nowhere to chase down Tomas Plekanec on a breakaway, more evidence of how Letang can take chances and play hunches in the offensive and neutral zones because he knows he can get back in a hurry if necessary.
Many of us reacted by pointing out how important Letang’s return will be for a Pittsburgh team that has been smacked by one serious injury after another now for the better part of the last 24 months. We talked about how great he looked in that first game back. We talked about how he’ll help the power play. Puck retrievals. Counter-attacks. The hockey fans in Pittsburgh appreciate everything Letang brings to the table. In short, we know this guy is a good hockey player.
But do we really understand how good?
I got to thinking about this when Letang was named to the NHL All-Star Game as an injury replacement for Dustin Byfuglien just four days after Letang’s return from a concussion and after playing just 25 games. Reaching the All-Star Game after playing barely a quarter of a season is no easy task – whether you get there because someone else gets hurt or not.
The NHL could very easily have chosen Dan Boyle, a top-10 scorer among defensemen who is a creative force on a very good San Jose team, or Duncan Keith of Chicago. The rosters were already lopsided with Eastern Conference defensemen.
They chose Letang. With 23 points in 26 games at the break, Letang was producing offensively at a pace barely exceeded by only one player: Erik Karlsson of Ottawa, who led all defensemen in scoring. In fact, before Max Pacioretty’s hit knocked him out of the lineup, Letang was on pace to reach 69 points this season – more than any defenseman reached last season. And, yes, he’s been solid in his own end, too.
When captain Daniel Alfredsson and his co-captain, Henrik Lundqvist, were drafting their All-Star team, they made Letang the third defenseman taken and the highest replacement player taken, commenting on what his speed would mean to the team. Even his peers talk about it.
No, Letang is not perfect. He still makes a few turnovers that leave you scratching your head. And he’s still learning how to be a more consistent force on the power play. But he’s playing a ton of minutes (26:09 per game at the break, sixth in the NHL and two minutes more per game than he saw last year) and producing points at a clip that would suggest he’s learned from his second-half slump last season.
That slump roughly paralleled the absence of Sidney Crosby, with whom Letang shares an unmistakable chemistry, but he’s only played four games with Crosby this season and was still dangerously close to being a point-per-game defenseman – rarified air for a blueliner.
If you consider how much more dangerous Letang will be when Crosby returns, and the fact Letang has not yet reached his prime, you might come to the conclusion that he’s a better player than even we’re giving him credit for, and that many more All-Star Game appearances—and perhaps Norris Trophy consideration someday—are on the horizon.
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