Pittsburgh’s Letang blossoming into elite blueliner

When the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted defenseman Kris Letang in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft – the same draft they took superstar center Sidney Crosby with the top overall pick – they thought they were getting a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who would transition well into the new, speed-oriented, post-lockout NHL.

What they have is a whole lot more.

The Montreal native, in his fourth season in Pittsburgh, is quickly cementing himself as not only a top-pair guy at the NHL level, but a Norris Trophy contender.

“It’s a long season. We are in December, so we aren’t going to get too excited for that,” a sheepish Letang told The Sports Network when asked about his thoughts on being an early season challenger for the award given to the NHL’s top defenseman.

While Letang’s personality might appear to be on the meek side, his game is anything but.

He is developing into a reliable two-way defenseman who has the speed and skill to join the rush, as well as a sound defensive game with just the right amount of physicality for his 6-foot, 200-pound frame.

Letang, just 23-years-old, has seen his game grow leaps and bounds since he began his professional career in 2006 with a seven-game stint with the Penguins before heading back to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the remainder of that season. He played 10 games in the AHL the following season before being called up to the NHL for good by Pittsburgh.

“I think when they got me here they only saw my offensive game,” Letang said. “I really focused on my game when I was in the American League. When I came up, I really focused on my game defensively and without the puck, with my stick.

Letang hasn’t always realized the importance of two-way play, however. During the 2005-2006 junior season, he posted an eye-popping 25 goals and 43 assists but was just a plus-four in the defensive category.

“He’s a guy whose mindset … if he had his choice I think he’d be a forward if he could do it all over again,” Brooks Orpik, Letang’s defense-partner for most of the season, told The Sports Network.

But after his brief stop in Pittsburgh in 2006, Letang returned to juniors, scored nine fewer goals and 16 fewer points, but was a plus-19, an early sign of his commitment to getting better in his own end.

Letang was a minus player in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh before finishing last season with a modest plus-one rating. This season – the first of a four-year, $14 million contract extension – while playing on the Penguins’ top defensive pairing with Orpik, Letang is thriving at both ends of the rink.

“I think it’s all coming together right now,” Letang said.

That’s a fair statement, considering the French Canadian is among the league leaders in two key categories for defensemen – points and plus/minus. Currently, he has tallied 27 points and a plus-17 rating, good for second among defenseman in scoring and fifth in plus/minus.

“I think the biggest change in him is knowing when to take chances and picking his spots,” Orpik said. “If we have a 2-0 lead, it’s a lot different than if we are trailing by two goals in the third period, and we have to create offense. I think the situational awareness and consistency are his biggest improvements.”

Letang has also improved at getting his shot on net, something he previously failed to do consistently at the NHL level. As a result, he is getting more points – he is currently just six off his career high of 33 in a season – and gaining more confidence.

“That’s something I think he worked on over the summer, and maybe it’s more of a focus thing,” Orpik said. “He’s getting a lot more of his shots on net. He’s got a good shot. That’s one of the hardest things now the way teams defend. You aren’t only trying to get it through the first guy, but you have three or four guys trying to block the shot.”

“Sometimes I take something off the shot [to get more accuracy],” Letang said. “I think I’m moving way better on the blueline than I used to as well. I used to look for the big shot, but now I’m just moving and creating some lanes, and I see the ice way more than I used to.”

Letang is being given more responsibility this season not only because of the big contract extension, but also the departure of Sergie Gonchar to Ottawa in the offseason, and he is thriving.

“He’s a completely different player than Gonchar,” Orpik said. “Power play- wise, you weren’t going to replace Gonchar, but he’s had more opportunity and is taking advantage.”

“There are a lot of things to improve, I don’t think I’m at my best right now,” Letang said.

Good news for Pittsburgh, bad news for the rest of the NHL.