On Saturday night, after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both coolly denied by New Jersey Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid, Kris Letang came through with a beautiful goal that brought the Pittsburgh Penguins a win, one that for about 19 minutes and 30 seconds of the third period looked like it wasn’t coming. He’s been a reliable choice for shootouts lately — so far in this season, he’s made two-thirds of his shootout attempts.
Letang’s goal is significant for more reasons than a mark in the win column for Pittsburgh. It’s significant because he was chosen to shoot third, while top scorers in the league like Phil Kessel were still waiting on the bench. It’s significant because this successful shot attempt tied him for first in the league in shootout accuracy with two shootout goals from three attempts. And finally, it’s significant because, despite all this, Letang is a defenseman.
League-Topping Shootout Performer
Letang is currently ranked fifth in shootout accuracy in the league, with 66% percent accuracy in three attempts. He is the top-ranked defenseman in the league in terms of shootout success, and he’s one of four defensemen that rank in the top 20 shootout players. He’s been a regular pick to shoot over the past three years, and even with the addition of some strong offensive players since last season (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin) head coach Mike Sullivan still ranks Letang in his top-three selections, and it’s paying off.
The other two defensemen in the top twenty shootout players are Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris trophy winner and Shane Gostisbehere, whose notable rookie season made him a candidate for last year’s Calder Trophy. This is just one aspect of Letang’s play, but in this area, he is among the best in the league.
The Significance of Letang’s Ranking
Letang has been getting better at shootouts throughout his career. He was ranked towards the bottom of the top 100 shooters in 2014 with two goals out of five attempts; this season, he’s scored on the majority of his shootout attempts.
Letang is signed on, like Malkin, Crosby, Kessel and Olli Maatta, until at least the 2021-22 season. He’s part of the Penguins core, and his shootout ranking is one example of how Pittsburgh benefits from his abilities as a two-way player. From his Cup-winning goal last year to his shootout wins now, he continues to be the Penguins’ most valuable defenseman.
Letang finished eighth in voting for the Norris Trophy last year. With his defensive play and his offensive offerings, especially in the very crucial but also hard to fill spot as a shootout winner, he’s making the case for another finalist position. He’s not currently on the list of top contenders for the trophy, but we’re less than halfway through the season and Letang’s value offensively and defensively to the Penguins is something Norris Trophy trackers should be watching.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.