New article – Kris Letang moving past inconsistant start this season
Source – Post Gazette article here
At the beginning of this season, Kris Letang was just happy to be playing.
After nearly eight months off the ice and offseason neck surgery, getting back into game action was an accomplishment enough in itself.
But now, 20 games into his return, Letang’s goals are higher. He wants to return to being the elite top-pairing defenseman he was prior to his most recent injury.
“I think I’m settling in better,” Letang said Saturday. “I think there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s improving.”
By his own admission, Letang’s start to the season was “too up and down.” He would look great for a game or two, but then struggle the following night.
“It’s not like it started slow,” Letang said. “I started with a really good game at the beginning, then a bad game. Good game, bad game. It was a consistency [issue].”
It makes sense. Letang doesn’t seem to have any lingering physical problems from the surgery — in fact, both he and coach Mike Sullivan have said multiple times that Letang might be in the best shape of his career — and he hasn’t forgotten how to play hockey. The biggest issue for Letang was getting back into the day-to-day rhythms of an 82-game season. That, he said, is how you breed the consistency he’s trying to find.
“As a defenseman, it’s a mindset,” he said. “There are some games you’re not going to be able to bring any offense, and you don’t want to force it. When you’re the last wave before the goalie, when you make a mistake, usually they’re costly. I think it’s a mindset of taking what the game gives you and don’t try to force anything.”
That can sometimes be tough for a player like Letang. He’s a supremely gifted creator offensively and, after missing so much time last year, there might be a sense of trying to make up for lost time. But now a quarter of the way through this season, he has learned to be a little bit more patient when the moment calls for it.
“Maybe simplifying things and building my game, game after game,” he said. “Even if I don’t create much, at least I’m building my game. That’s what I’m trying to do right now, just build game after game, try and get confidence and get better every day.”
His last few games may provide evidence that he’s trending in that direction, too. Prior to the Penguins’ 2-1 loss to Chicago Saturday, Letang had recorded point in three consecutive games. His plus-minus went from an NHL-worst minus-16 to a slightly better minus-12.
Sullivan specifically pointed to those three games as “really strong” for Letang.
“I think his game’s really gained some traction,” Sullivan said. “He’s been focused on playing defense first and just simplifying his game and letting his game grow from there.”
There’s still room for improvement, to be clear. The six penalty minutes against Chicago (and 14 in the last four games) serve as a reminder that he could probably stand to stay out of the box a little more frequently. And while his plus-minus has improved over the past week (and is weighed down by a couple of blowout losses), minus-12 is still not where he wants to be.
Letang said he is still focusing on doing what Sullivan said: Keeping the game simple and focusing on his defense first.
“I think the game comes to me when I play a strong defensive game, I’m able to find holes in the opposition,” he said.
If he sticks with that, the offense will come and his overall game will continue to improve. And people will remember just how good he can be at his best.
“I thought at the beginning, I was just happy to be playing,” Letang said. “Now, I’m expecting more from myself because I’m healthy now and playing. I’m looking for more. I want to get better and be back where people saw me before.”