Earlier in the season, if Kris Letang had one point in his past nine outings, my take would have been that he wasn’t doing much out there.
And I would have been dead wrong.
I know that now because last week I had my first chance this year to see the 23-year-old Letang play in person. Further to that, my seat in the press box offered the perfect bird’s-eye perspective to appreciate Letang’s astute decision-making in all three zones.
I’ll be honest: when Letang was up near the top of the defense scoring charts early in the season, I assumed he was an offense-minded player who was benefiting from some superb teammates. He just seemed to fit that flashy-but-flimsy mold perfectly. From afar, that is. Now that I’ve seen him from above, I have a whole new appreciation. (And I’m not the only one; I’d say skip to No. 20, but it’s all a good read)
The first thing that keyed me into Letang’s growth was a conversation I had in November with Pens assistant coach Todd Reirden. The discussion was actually about the success Letang and former Pittsburgh D-man Alex Goligoski were having at the time and Reirden touched on the fact the organization had asked both burgeoning players to take bigger roles on the team in a number of capacities.
“It’s something we challenged them with this summer and I think both of them have stepped up in terms of their leadership, saying things on the bench and knowing how we want to play,” Reirden said. “That’s been the biggest difference for me.”
Another difference now, of course, is that Goligoski continues to grow with the Dallas Stars after the Pens shipped him there for a long-wanted winger, James Neal, along with blueliner Matt Niskanen.
Goligoski has been good in Dallas - really good, like to the tune of six points in his past six games. My guess is that doesn’t surprise Pens management because they knew they were moving a quality player who was only getting better when they traded him. But it’s Letang’s development that allowed them to do that, which speaks volumes about where the organization believes he is and where he’ll end up.
Hockey is never an easier game than when you’re watching it while munching on popcorn from high above the ice. The reason people in my industry have that wonderful ‘so-called expert’ tag is because the game we watch unfolds at the speed of a blooming flower shown with time-lapse photography. You watch guys with rings and medals and find yourself thinking, ‘Hey, pass to that guy, man. It’s easy.’
I think Letang made every one of those passes, which is maybe the best thing you can say about a defenseman when you consider how fast the game really moves.
With the off-season signings of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek – and don’t forget about Niskanen’s potential – Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has done a great job of rebuilding his team’s blueline corps on the fly and there’s no doubt in my mind Letang is the lynchpin.
His name will start show up on the scoresheet again soon, but don’t assume his game is shrinking just because it’s not right now.
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