Post-Gazette – Changing game has not been a simple process for Penguins defenseman Kris Letang
OTTAWA — Kris Letang certainly will try. The last thing he wants is to be labeled as a player who won’t listen to his coach or be insubordinate, but Letang is not dumb, either.
As someone who will turn 30 in late April and has played a certain way his entire career, Letang isn’t sure playing a more conservative style — the way the Penguins coaching staff would like him to — is possible.
It’s like Andrew McCutchen’s swing or Ben Roethlisberger’s throwing motion. They are what they are at this point, good or bad. Letang has been a risk-taker and a body-sacrificer for much of his career, but now he has been asked to change.
“It’s something that’s in the back of my mind, but it’s tough to change a guy who has played his entire life like that,” Letang said. “It’s something we’ll pay attention to, try to improve that.”
The Penguins would like Letang to take fewer nasty hits to keep him on the ice more. He is their best defensemen, someone capable of playing 26, 27 or even 30 minutes a game, and much of their offense flows through him.
When he’s at his best — and, of course, healthy — Letang belongs in the conversation with guys such as San Jose’s Brent Burns, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
One of the problems is that Letang hasn’t remained as healthy as some of the NHL’s marquee names on the back end. The Penguins are hoping that reining in Letang’s style might help that.
“‘Tanger’ is a very competitive guy, and he plays with a lot of courage,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s willing to take hits to make plays. Sometimes, he takes unnecessary hits because he’s hanging on to the puck to try and wait for something to develop that might not be there.
“One of the things that our coaching staff has discussed with Kris is trying to not put himself in so many vulnerable positions. We admire and respect how hard he plays, how competitive he is and how brave he is. We don’t want that to change, but we want him to be a little bit more selective on when he chooses to make a simple play.
“Sometimes, there’s just not a play to be made. We’d just like him to recognize those situations and not put himself in vulnerable situations where he doesn’t have to take hits.”
Defensive development coach Sergei Gonchar can relate. Probably as well as anybody, given his own resume as one of the best offensive defenseman in NHL history. Early on in Gonchar’s career, he learned the hard way about protecting himself.
And it’s a lesson that Letang, too, needs to learn.
“He’s playing a lot of minutes for us,” Gonchar said. “He’s a big part of our group. We want him to be on the ice as much as possible, within reason. At the same time, to be able to do that, he has to protect himself to make sure that he’s not getting injured out there.
“Sometimes, Kris has an opportunity to protect himself, but he doesn’t always do it. It’s a habit that he didn’t have. Some guys are better at it than others, but I think it’s one of those things he has to learn and be better at.”
Gonchar said the natural tendency is to pass the puck and think about how to continue with an offensive push, instead of worrying about whether you’re going to get creamed.
Gonchar and Jacques Martin have worked with Letang about this awareness, as well as picking his spots better when joining the rush.
Letang is also more than willing to battle in corners, and he said the coaching staff has tried to convince him to avoid such collisions.
“There’s certain situations where [Sullivan] doesn’t want me … there’s no reason, there’s nothing to gain to go and try and take the hit or put myself in a bad position,” Letang said. “On a 50-50 puck, he’d rather I go in second instead of going in to make the play. Most of those guys won’t try to make a play. They’ll just try to bang me.”
Letang is still producing points — 0.76 per game, fifth among NHL defensemen — but his Goals Against Per 60 Minutes (GA60) mark of 2.83 at even strength is the third-worst on the team and the highest of Letang’s career.
All this while missing 12 of 41 games with various injuries.
To put it simply: There are still kinks that need ironed out.
“It’s tough,” Letang said. “It’s tough to change it. But if it adds years to my career, I will.”
Jason Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG.