Post-Gazette: Letang developing into top defenseman

Not everyone has realized yet that defenseman Kris Letang is developing into one of the league’s best
Monday, November 15, 2010
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some people were upset when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was left off the NHL’s all-star ballot.

Others were surprised.

Or flat-out perplexed.

Not Letang, though.

It’s not just that he didn’t care. He didn’t even know.

Turns out that even though the league released the 100-player ballot last Friday, Letang didn’t learn about it until a reporter mentioned it a few hours before the Penguins’ 4-2 victory at Atlanta the next night.

“I don’t really pay attention to those things,” he said, shrugging.

Nothing wrong with that. The interesting part is that people in the NHL’s Hockey Operations department, who selected the players on the ballot, apparently haven’t been paying attention to Letang.

There is, of course, no shortage of qualified candidates for those spots, and a case could be made for any number of players to be added to — or dropped from — the ballot.

But going into last night’s games, none of the 29 defensemen who are on the ballot had more points than Letang’s 17 and only one — Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit — had matched his output.

Scouting report Two other numbers of note: Just four of Letang’s points have come on the power play, and he has a plus-minus rating of plus-9, better than all but six NHL defensemen.

Both of those stats underscore that Letang is not a one-dimensional point-producer.

That’s significant, because his offensive talents were evident before the Penguins claimed him in the third round of the 2005 entry draft.

It’s the evolution of Letang’s defensive game that has earned him a place in this team’s core.

Assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the defensemen, said Letang’s overall game “is really coming together,” which, Letang said, has always been his objective.

“I want to be a two-way player,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen just as an offensive guy who is able to play on the power play and do those types of things.

“I want to be a guy who hits hard and is tough to play against in my zone. Make sure that all forwards have to pay the price if they want to have a good scoring chance in our zone.”

He does that often enough that Reirden paired him with Brooks Orpik and matched those two against Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone-Steven Stamkos-Martin St. Louis line during the Penguins’ 5-1 victory Friday at Consol Energy Center.

Mind you, the process of becoming a presence at both ends is not seamless, and Letang experienced a couple of major hiccups during Saturday’s game in Atlanta.

Like when Andrew Ladd of the Thrashers put the puck between his legs to create a quality short-handed scoring opportunity early in the game, and when Letang turned the puck over to Bryan Little with just over four minutes left in regulation, giving Atlanta a chance to score a goal that would have tied the score.

If Letang needed a reminder of just how little margin for error there is at his position — and just how much he can upgrade his body of work — the Thrashers game provided it.

“I want to be known as a top player, but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take work,” he said. “I’m going to have to improve.”

Setbacks are to be expected, however. Letang, at 23, is very much a work-in-progress, and figures to be for quite a few more seasons.

“He’s certainly not a finished product, by any means,” Reirden said.

Some refinements are beginning to show, however.

Despite playing with a right hand that has been injured repeatedly, Letang is getting the puck on goal more consistently than he did even a year ago.

In 2009-10, he had 2.4 shots per game, but missed the net an average of 1.3 times. This season, he has averaged 2.2 shots, and shooting high or wide just once per game.

That reflects his enhanced ability to read and anticipate plays, to know what he’s going to do with the puck — and where he’s going to go to do it — before it touches his stick.

“His ability to skate and get shots through is something we’ve spent a lot of time working on, video-wise, and before practices,” Reirden said. “He certainly has done a great job of that.”

Quite a few other things, too. Not everyone in the league seems to be aware of it just yet, but they’ll catch on eventually. Especially if Letang comes close to fully realizing his potential.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement with Kris,” Reirden said. “That’s the exciting part.”