TribLive: Pens’ Letang close to realizing vast potential

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang realizes he has the potential to become a star and is also highly aware that, as a restricted free agent this summer, he soon could be paid like one.

Letang, though, is attempting to delay thinking about his new contract.

The defenseman has played some of his best hockey in recent games, and not coincidentally, the Penguins are showing signs of shedding their mid-season funk.

“I think he’s pushing, and I think we’re pushing him to step up his game,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “He can be a guy who ends up being a shutdown guy with his skating ability and the way he plays defense.”

With Letang a restricted free agent and Sergei Gonchar an unrestricted free agent, this summer could be interesting for Penguins GM Ray Shero.

Letang agrees that the subject of his impending contract comes up regularly.

“It’s always tough,” he said. “People around you talk about it. My family talks about it. They want what is best for me. And my friends talk about it all the time. So I always hear about it.”

Letang is occasionally a lightning rod for criticism because of his immense talent. When his game is clicking, he looks like a star.

His occasional inconsistency, especially in the offensive zone, can be frustrating. But his teammates are quick to point out that he won’t turn 23 until April.

“He’s just so unique and so young,” Penguins winger Ruslan Fedotenko said. “Right now, he’s still in the part of his career where he’s going through the growing process. He’s still learning. He has a chance to be a great player when the growing process is over.”

Letang has registered points in four of his past six games. Hesitant to shoot in the past, he has fired pucks on net more regularly in recent games.

His days of trying to be perfect might be over.

“That’s always been my problem,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to pick corners, you know, always trying to make the perfect shot. Now I’ve realized that you just need to get the puck on net and good things can happen.”

While Letang is often viewed as an offensive defenseman because of his skill level and his outstanding work in shootouts, his defense has been steady for most of his Penguins career. His skating ability and underrated strength have made him one of the team’s most reliable defenders.

“He probably doesn’t get enough credit in that regard,” said Mark Eaton, who generally is Letang’s defense partner.

“Really, experience is all he needs at this point. He’s got talent. He’s going to keep getting better and better.”

There is a swagger to Letang’s game, one that indicates his best days are clearly ahead. Given his dynamic potential, it appears only some fine-tuning and old-fashioned hard work are required to see his game continue to elevate. Letang is always one of the last Penguins off the ice following practices, so his work ethic is never questioned.

The same can be said for his confidence.

“I don’t think confidence is ever an issue with Tanger,” Eaton said with a smile.

Letang is pleased with his recent performance and believes his future is bright. He just doesn’t want to look too far into the future.

This summer can wait.

“You go through ups and downs in a season, and I didn’t like how I was playing a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “But I like how I’m playing now. I’m not going to worry about any contract stuff or anything right now. I just want to keep getting better and keep winning games.”