By John Toperzer
The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Kris Letang in the third round of the 2005 entry draft and he went on to score 25 goals and 68 points in 60 QMJHL games with 156 penalty minutes for Val d’Or in 2005-06 – good numbers for a winger, great for a defenseman. He led all “Q” blueliners with 290 shots that season.
Letang then spent the first 10 games of 2006-07 in Pittsburgh, scoring two goals. He beat Rangers’ netminder, Henrik Lundqvist, with a wrister over the King’s glove for his first NHL goal before getting sent back to Val d’Or for the remainder of the year. Letang did play in the Baby Penguins’ last playoff game before seeing his season end.
The defender also captained Team Canada to a gold-medal showing in the World Junior Championships.
In the fall of 2007, Letang was one of Pittsburgh’s last cuts. He started the season with Wilkes-Barre and even served as a healthy scratch. Baby Penguins’ head coach, Todd Richards, was not happy with his effort level and benched him for one early-season October contest.
After compiling one goal and seven points in 10 AHL games, Pittsburgh recalled him. He went on to score six goals and 17 points in 63 games, decent numbers for a rookie but nothing too special. Letang battled Ryan Whitney for power-play time alongside Sergei Gonchar.
On Dec. 7, 2007, he netted his first game-deciding shootout goal, a winner in Calgary. He added his second game-deciding goal the next night in Vancouver. During the Winter Classic played in Buffalo, the defender beat goalie Ryan Miller for his fourth shootout score in four attempts. Letang was something special in the shootout when he first arrived in the league.
In late March, 2008, Letang picked up his first NHL fighting major against the Rangers’ Marc Staal. Letang referred to his fight as more of a wrestling match. “[Christian] Backman punched or cross-checked Sid, so I jumped to him and I didn’t see Staal coming from behind,” Letang told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I could have thrown some punches when he was down, but that’s not respectful.”
The defenseman returned for the 2008-09 after getting benched in his first Stanley Cup Final. He tallied two assists in 16 playoff games in 2007-08. Letang also mourned the passing of close friend and fellow hockey player, Luc Bourdon.
A foot injury to Ryan Whitney opened the door for Letang in the fall of 2008. By the first week of the season, he was already leading Pittsburgh blueliners in ice time. A short time later, he paired with Brooks Orpik to form the team’s top defensive combo.
In February of 2009, Letang served as a healthy scratch in what some thought might be a precursor to a trade to Montreal for Alexei Kovalev.
Alas, coach Dan Bylsma simply said he was dissatisfied with Letang’s play.
“We thought Kris didn’t play particularly well in Long Island,” Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I talked to Kris about it. Really, this is about playing the way we need to play and practicing the way we need to practice. You’ve got to bring that every day.”
In May, Letang scoring a game-winning goal against the Washington Capitals, his first postseason score in 24 playoff games. His goal was particularly impressive because he was playing with a sprained shoulder.
Letang’s 2008-09 Stanley Cup-winning, playoff run included four goals and 13 points in 23 games.
Penguins’ GM, Ray Shero, talked about Letang’s upcoming restricted free agency.
“We’ll probably explore something [with Letang] at some point,” Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s a big part of our future. He did a really good job last year in terms of improving as a player. He certainly has a way to go in some areas to improve, but he made good steps last year.”
Meanwhile, Letang found himself in the middle of an interesting scenario at the beginning of 2009-10. On Oct. 8, Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell reportedly bit Letang’s finger.
“It’s a first for me,” Letang said, describing what ailment befelled him. ” I want you to ask him (Hartnell) and make sure you get the right answer. Just go ask him. I want to know the answer.”
Letang slumped with five assists in 16 games after returning from a shoulder surgery suffered in early November.
He rebounded with a strong second half and signed a contract extension in late March of 2010. He signed for four years, $14 million ($3.5 million AAV).
Letang finished 2009-10 with three goals and 27 points in 73 regular-season games. The playoffs were another story. He netted five goals and two assists in 13 contests, including his first power-play marker since the playoffs a year earlier.
The 2010-11 campaign saw Letang score his first regular-season goal in 37 games. He scored on Oct. 18 and then added his first game-winner since March 25, 2008, three nights later.
On Nov. 3, Letang injured a finger during a fight against Brenden Morrow. He would miss only one period of action.
As of mid-January, the blueliner was clicking on all cylinders. He led the NHL write-in vote-getters among defensemen and on Jan. 12 he assisted on three of four power-play goals. By that point, Letang had seven goals and 40 points, but with Sidney Crosby out due to concussion, he would deliver only 10 more points in the final three months of the regular season – a span of 37 games.
Letang scored 42 points (10G, 32A) in 51 games in 2011-12.
In October, he was suspended two games for a hit on Alex Burmistrov, who was always a thorn in Pittsburgh’s side.
On Nov. 4, he totaled a whopping 33:56 TOI against the Sharks. In Sidney Crosby’s season debut Nov. 21, Letang chipped in with an assist and a plus-2 rating. During the previous season, Letang totaled 36 points in 41 games played by Crosby, but only 14 in 41 without Crosby.
Five days after Crosby’s return, Max Pacioretty broke Letang’s nose in Montreal. Letang came back and scored the game-winner in overtime, but wouldn’t play again until Jan. 19 due to a concussion. Pacioretty received a three-game suspension for his un-penalized hit.
Dallas’s Eric Nystrom then caught Letang with a questionable hit Feb. 29, 2012, forcing the defender out for another couple weeks.
In the ill-fated playoff loss to the Flyers, Letang was ejected in Game 3 for fighting Kimmo Timonen. During the first-round defeat, Letang’s penchant for undisciplined disciplined play seemed to peak, along with the rest of the Penguins.
He underwent summer surgery to repair an injured hip after rest proved it was simply not enough.
On Jan. 4, 2013, Letang announced he signed to play in Russia during the lockout. Two days later the lockout was settled.
In the one-week training camp, Letang practiced as the team’s lone defenseman on the power play.
“Letang is the defender back there,” coach Dan Bylsma told the Pens’ website. “In that regard, I think we’re better and a little bit different than last year. … Everybody has to be cognizant of situations where they have to be back and get back.”
By March 16, he led all NHL defensemen with 28 points – no other blueliner had more than 21 points and the Norris Trophy seemed within reached. He suffered a lower-body injury the next day. Letang then missed three games, came back, broke a toe and re-injured his lower body (which turned out to be a groin).
He finally returned April 11 and finished out the year.
After two playoff rounds, Letang ranked second among all players in scoring with three goals and 13 points in 16 games (one point behind David Krejci), including nine points (2G, 7A) on the power play. He would go pointless in four games against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
Letang is 26 years of age. Defensemen often take longer to develop than wingers and forwards. The Penguins have the Montreal, Quebec, native signed through 2022. He’ll make $3.5 million this season before an eight-year, $58 million contract extension kicks in. Letang does not have a limited- or no-movement clause until July 1, 2014. At that point, it will be more difficult (but not impossible) to trade the defenseman.
From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“Starting July 1, 2014, he will hold a limited-movement clause that allows him to select from 12 teams to which the Penguins can’t trade him. The list can be altered prior to the start of every season during Letang’s new contract, which will expire after the 2021-22 campaign.”
Along with P.K. Subban and Ryan Suter, Letang was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2012-13. He was the only top blueliner to average better than one point per game – he finished with 38 points in 35 contests, but the 13 games missed hurt his Norris Trophy chances. Subban won the award with a similar 38 points in 42 games, but netted 11 goals to Letang’s five. The Montreal defender also doubled Letang’s power-play points, 26 (7G, 19A) to 13 (1G, 12A).
With the NHL salary cap dropping about six million dollars to $64 million (as part of the new collective bargaining agreement), there was speculation that Pittsburgh might move Letang last summer.
Negotiations between the Penguins and Letang did not go smoothly.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pens GM, Ray Shero, left the trade door open on Letang.
Shero said “a couple of teams” have inquired about Letang’s availability in trades, but have been rebuffed.
“They read the paper,” he said. ” ‘Just in case, if you don’t do something, can you keep us in mind?’ I haven’t explored any of that, and I don’t think that’s productive at this point. Our goal is to try to sign him.
Late last week, Letang rejected an eight-year offer that would have doubled his $3.5 million salary. Hughes is believed to have countered with a proposal worth at least $500,000 more per year, and the Penguins obviously didn’t accept it.
“An extra $250,000 here, another $500,000 here. … It all adds up,” Shero said.
It was interesting that Shero would make a comment about $250K when the contract is worth north of $50 million.
The Penguins organization would not give Letang a verbal guarantee that he wouldn’t be traded before his new extension begins.
Framework of the potential deal’s length (eight years) and finances ($58 million total) were agreed upon, but there was haggling over Letang’s push for a verbal agreement the Penguins will not trade him next summer, multiple sources told the Tribune-Review.
The Penguins balked at that request.
Shero heard from Montreal, Philadelphia, San Jose, and chatted with general managers from Los Angeles and Vancouver about Letang at the entry draft, according to the above report.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s, Rob Rossi, wrote that he’s not even certain Pittsburgh views Letang as its best defenseman.
That is true because Letang is not the consensus best defenseman on the Penguins, at least in the eyes of management and coaches.
That is true because the Penguins are deepest on defense among top prospects, including a couple of first-round picks from last summer (Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta).
Letang, clearly, is not on their level. Shero all but said so last week. He referred to Malkin and Crosby as “franchise players” and called Letang a “very good defenseman.”
Rossi’s last quote from Shero is particularly telling.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Rossi voiced his thoughts on Letang’s side of the negotiations. While making radio appearances on TSN Radio and the Fan 590, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer was quoted as saying the following.
“Kris is a little bit curious about where he stands long range in the Penguins’ plans,” he told TSN Radio. “He has read reports of mine that there are people within the Pittsburgh organization that thought Paul Martin was the better defenceman last year, and there has been a sort of a hesitation on a willingness to commit to him (Letang) to a long-term deal at elite defenceman money.
“I’ve been told that if the Penguins couldn’t reach some sort of understanding with Letang, and the belief was they wouldn’t be able to sign him to some sort of deal, that Toronto has emerged as a preferred landing spot – perhaps by Letang. It would be a place that he would be willing, if dealt, to perhaps sign a long-term deal.”
Will DePaoli of The Insider On Pittsburgh Sports added that a source told him Letang and his agent, Kent Hughes, have doubts about Pittsburgh’s negotiating sincerity.
One official told me tonight Letang and his agent, Kent Hughes, don’t trust the Penguins for some reason.
Players getting traded before their no trade clause kicks in, has been a concern for some agents out there since Jeff Carter was traded by Philadelphia to Columbus, but there’s nothing you can do. Carter signed an 11-year, $58 Million contract extension with the Flyers on November 13, 2010, only to be traded that summer before his new deal and no trade clause kicked in.
The acrimony eventually subsided enough for the Penguins and Letang to reach agreement on the eight-year extension.
Kris Letang is a good defenseman. As difficult as that statement has been to back up at times the past couple seasons, it’s true. Whether or not you believe the defender merited a Norris Trophy nomination, he has been very good. A bigger question is how much can he continue to improve over the course of his long extension? Is he the type of player who learns from his mistakes or has he already peaked with his blazing speed?
That’s the burning question Penguins general manager, Ray Shero, must answer. If Letang’s skillset stays where it’s at right now, the contract is an overpay and has the makings of an albatross. Some might argue that his play has fallen off since 2011 and it would be hard to argue with them.
Big-time blueliners are hard to find. They take years to cultivate. Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman was drafted second overall in 2009 and is just now coming into his own. Buffalo’s Tyler Myers burst onto the scene in 2010, signed a contract that paid him $12 million-plus alone in 2012-13 and now has the makings of a bust.
Letang has seen his share of up-and-down play. At times, he appears undisciplined and willing to take risks that are unnecessary. His recent highlight reels often consist of him turning the puck over in the neutral zone and then out-racing an opposing forward back to break up a scoring chance.
At 26, Letang’s greatest asset is his elite speed. There’s no reason why he can’t keep most if not all of that speed as he ages – like Pascal Dupuis – given his legendary off-season workout regimes.
The Pittsburgh organization needs to determine whether he can raise other aspects of his game, mostly mental ones. He often makes bad passes on the power play and poor decisions in his own end.
Fundamentally, the team could ask itself if a young defenseman whose skillset plays to the defensive side of the puck might be a better fit. The postseason has shown how offense can be shut down and gritty blueliners and hard-nosed play in general win games in June. Could the Pens spend money more wisely?
Furthermore, the Pens need to get a better read on Letang’s leadership skills. Will he continue to grow? Can he settle things down when a Flyers team administers a full-ice press in the playoffs? Can he keep his cool and focus on the ice?
After researching contract extension talks, it almost seems as if both the Penguins and Letang begrudgingly came to an agreement. How much of the animosity was simply a negotiating ploy remains to be seen, but it’s hard imagining Shero calling out Sidney Crosby’s contract demands for an extra $250K, as he did with Letang.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need to make a move with the defender right now. In fact, he would have more trade value at the deadline, provided he turns around his slow start. What if Letang improves, as history suggests he will. Say he averages a point per game from December to February. Should the team still look for a trade?
Letang’s cap hit of $7.25 million looks particularly expensive right now, but the salary cap is expected to rise significantly over the next several seasons. If he figures out the mental side of hockey, then his contract could appear much more reasonable.
The Penguins need Kris Letang now more than ever. Two of the team’s top four blueliners – Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin – are out of the lineup. Brooks Orpik continues to play hard, physical hockey, but makes mistakes frequently. Matt Niskanen plays well against small forwards, but the consistency just isn’t there. Young defensemen Olli Maatta, Simon Despres and to a lesser extent, Robert Bortuzzo, haven’t played NHL minutes in clutch situations. Maatta has seen some top minutes but still has much to learn as a 19-year-old rookie. Deryk Engelland might be better as a fourth-line forward than as a blueliner.
Kris Letang has a huge opportunity to rebuild his brand name with the Pens in the weeks and months ahead. His future in Pittsburgh depends upon it.
A look at Letang’s real-time statistics
Missed Shots (MS)
06-07 7G 8H 3B 3MS 3G 2T 8SH
07-08 63G 79H 75B 38MS 39G 16T 68SH
08-09 74G 111H 127B 58MS 54G 23T 138SH
09-10 73G 117H 75B 96MS 48G 28T 174SH
10-11 82G 167H 109B 101MS 52G 39T 236SH
11-12 51G 83H 86B 44MS 34G 28T 142SH
12-13 35G 45H 59B 37MS 34G 12T 95SH
13-14 16G 15H 16B 12MS 23G 6T 48SH
Note the increase in giveaways from 2010-11 to 2013-14 (in bold)