Kris Letang needs a new year resolution to help the Pittsburgh Penguins accomplish their team goal. He is the most talented defenseman in the NHL, but he depends solely on his talent to find success. Letang roams freely on the ice with no restrictive boundaries. Whether Letang is given the liberty to do whatever he wants shift after shift, playing the position of rover has hurt the Pens.
If he plays with more discipline and structure to his game, Letang will be a Norris Trophy candidate each year for the next decade. Instead of skating up on the play as often as possible, Letang would reap the benefits if he chose to play a smarter, more constructive game.
Less is More
Letang played at a point per game pace in the regular season and the playoffs. This was an incredible feat, but the Pens were the highest scoring team in the league over the past two seasons. Scoring is not a weakness of this team. Letang moves up on every offensive rush that the Pens have heading into an opponent’s end. This isn’t necessary when you look at all of the talent the Pens have at the forward position. If the Pens were struggling to score then I’d understand why Letang would be pressing to help out the offense.
Until we get to the point where the Pens aren’t one of the top scoring teams in the league, Letang needs to wisely choose when he moves up on an offensive rush. Letang needs to be aware of the score and the opposing forwards on the ice, before he decides to move up on an offensive rush. He has the ability to play great defense with his size and strength. He needs to be an asset in the Pens’ defensive end more than the offensive end.
While many of us marveled at Letang when he picked up four assists in a 7-3 playoff win against the Ottawa Senators, he was also on the ice for the three goals scored by the Sens. He was personally responsible for all three of the goals surrendered, but still awarded the number one star. Awarding Letang the number one star for that particular performance sends the wrong message that all we expect from him is offense. Letang’s responsibility is to keep pucks out of his own net first and foremost.
Letang’s defensive zone play needs a dramatic overhaul. He is constantly caught watching the puck when his head should be on a swivel picking up an opposing forward. In addition, he reacts to the puck instead of anticipating or soundly playing his position. He needs to be tying up the stick of an opposing forward in the defensive zone to protect the front of his goalie’s crease. Letang is strong enough to out-muscle anyone in the league fighting for the puck in a one-on-one battle. He needs to be in a better defensive position. If Letang fine-tuned his defensive play, he would not only be the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, but would also be the best shutdown defenseman in the league.
If Letang does retrieve the puck in his defensive zone, he needs to make smarter decisions. Letang looks to make a tape-to-tape pass every time he has control of the puck. His four teammates may be covered and Letang will attempt to force a pass that isn’t open. Letang has to flip the puck high off of the glass or dump the puck into open space when a pass is unavailable. He was one of the league leaders in giveaways but has the ability to minimize these blunders with smarter puck management.
This goes hand in hand with Letang’s puck management as the quarterback of the power play. The Pens are rarely going to dump the puck into the offensive zone when they are on the power play. I won’t even go there with Letang, and he is only one of five culprits when it comes to that issue. On the other hand, he cannot force a pass that may develop into a shorthanded chance for the opposing team. Letang must do a better job with the puck on the power play during offensive zone time as well. He needs to be more selective whether he is shooting to score or is shooting to get a puck on the net for a rebound. Way too often, Letang tries to play sniper and pick a corner on every shot. This mentality causes Letang to miss the net much more than we would prefer.
The Key to the Cup
The Pens are lucky to have signed Letang to a contract extension with all that he brings to the table each game. He’s an immense talent and has the ability to be the best overall defenseman in the NHL. If Letang tried playing with more structure and taking smarter chances, he’d help the Pens’ accomplish more in the long run. Letang is responsible for defending the top scoring line of every team the Pens play. He receives the most ice-time per game in the regular season and the playoffs. These factors cause Letang to have more impact on the Pens’ destiny than any other player on the roster. The Pens need Letang to play solid defense more than being one of the highest scoring defenseman in the league. If Letang does that, he can lead the Pens to where everyone expects them to be at the end of this season.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.