CHICAGO — Kris Letang has a hard, heavy shot, the kind you would expect from an NHL defenseman with offensive flair.
The kind that would make any goaltender stand up and take notice — if the shot was consistently on target.
“Hitting the net is something he’s been urged to work on,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said of Letang.
Letang’s aim eluded him, and his goal total dipped from 10 in 2008-09 to three last season. So — much like teammate Sidney Crosby did the summer before — Letang spent a lot of the past offseason working on his shot.
Also like Crosby, Letang made an equipment change. Crosby switched from a two-piece stick with a wooden blade to a one-piece composite stick. He then scored a career-best 51 goals for a share of the league lead for 2009-10.
Letang, hoping for more velocity and accuracy, is using a bigger curve in his blade.
“I tried it, and I liked it, so we’ll see,” said Letang, who spent hours getting used to the new stick and working on his accuracy by shooting off-ice.
A more productive shot no doubt would help Letang — entering his fourth NHL season — nail down the job as the quarterback of the power play from the right point, where Sergei Gonchar lived before leaving through free agency. Letang and fellow defensemen Paul Martin and Alex Goligoski appear to be the front-runners.
In the Penguins’ 5-2 exhibition loss against the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night at the United Center, Letang yielded to Goligoski on that right point spot for the Penguins’ only power play, and Goligoski scored.
While his production diminished last season, Letang had a strong postseason, flashing five goals, seven points and a lot of poise over 13 games.
“It was better in the playoffs than it was in the regular season,” Letang said.
“I would like to play the whole season like I did in the playoffs last year.
“I think so far in camp I’m doing certain things well, and certain things need to be improved.”
Letang has even added a snarl to his game this preseason — he fought, and won, twice Saturday in a win against Columbus.
Bylsma has noticed a carryover from the playoffs.
“He’s confident, skating extremely well, defending with a bit of a bite — minus the two fights — playing hard in the corners and in front of the net,” Bylsma said.
“But also [he’s playing with his] head up and confident on the power play, up ice, making plays as well, playing a game I think he can play.
“I’m looking for him to keep doing that stepping into Game 1 and doing that for our team.”
Letang has solidified his place as one of the Penguins’ top four defensemen. Having 2009 first-round draft pick Simon Despres, also a defenseman, in training camp this year with a chance to still be around when the Penguins open the regular season Thursday against Philadelphia takes him back.
In 2006, when he was 19, Letang played seven games with the Penguins before being sent back to juniors.
“It’s a great experience,” Letang said. “I went back to junior and I was more mature. I knew more things.”
Although there are a lot of young star defensemen in the NHL, Letang believes in the old adage that it takes longer for players to develop at that position than for forwards, particularly because they have to learn added responsibilities.
“What’s tough for a defenseman is to learn to play defensively in the NHL,” Letang said.
“If I would have played for another team and I had a Sidney Crosby and [an Evgeni] Malkin coming at me when I was 18 as a defenseman … you’re usually not ready for that.”
Letang arrived as a defenseman with offensive talent, then concentrated on shoring up the defensive aspects of his game.
Now he is back to the offense, or at least that shot.
“Kris has worked long and hard on it,” Bylsma said. “He’s been better on it, but I don’t think we’re going to let him off the hook until it’s on the net every time.”