Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan announced today that Kris Letang will be out for approximately two weeks with a lower-body injury after a few games of getting up worryingly slowly from hits. This announcement comes in the midst of a seven-game winning streak and will slate him to miss the rest of the Penguins’ December games. Letang is the Penguins’ most relied-upon defender, and in his absence Sullivan will need to lean more heavily on less immediately recognizable names down the roster.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 15, 2016
Letang’s Impact in Pittsburgh
Kris Letang averages the seventh-most time spent on the ice per game in the league. His average of 26 minutes per game leads the Penguins; the two players who spend the most time out on the ice other than him, Brian Dumoulin and Trevor Daley, each average about 20 minutes per game. Letang’s is a difficult role to fill in part just because of the sheer amount of time he spends out on the ice. Not every player can spend a full half game on the ice every match and take the consequent number of hits that Letang often does.
Letang has played a significant part in the Penguins’ recent seven-game winning streak. Although he hasn’t scored, he’s had seven assists over the seven games, including three in one game in the Dec. 10 matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in which he spent almost half an hour on the ice.
Lineup Possibilities Minus Letang
With Letang out of the lineup, it could be time for the Penguins to call up Derrick Pouliot to play. Although he was chosen eighth overall in the 2012 draft, he hasn’t so far seen significant ice time with the Penguins. Justin Schultz has taken the spot on the Penguins’ third defense pairing that some had guessed would go to Pouliot. Pouliot has instead, due to a combination of injury and not enough room on the roster, has spent time with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. Letang’s absence could be an opportunity for Sullivan to try playing Pouliot with the Penguins again.
Another option for Sullivan is to lean more heavily on Schultz, who has recently put up some impressive numbers for the Penguins and is currently tied with the Canadiens’ Shea Weber to lead the league with a plus-18 rating. In the Penguin’s seven-game winning streak since Dec. 1, he’s put up seven assists and four goals.
Justin Schultz now leads the NHL with a plus-18 rating. I'm guessing this comes as a surprise to some people in Edmonton.
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) December 15, 2016
With 11 points in seven games, maybe Sullivan could start to lean more heavily on Schultz to eat up some of the ice time that Letang took on. Currently playing about 15 minutes per game, perhaps we will see Schultz’s ice time increase if Sullivan decides to lean more heavily on him. This seems more feasible than increasing the ice time of other defenders like Dumoulin and Daley, who already average 20 minutes a game.
The loss of Letang will certainly be felt in Pittsburgh. With Schultz hitting his stride and Pouliot waiting down in minors, Sullivan at least has some options in terms of who can attempt to step in for him as he recovers from his injury.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.