Kris Letang & Penguins Face Tough Road with Defenseman on IR

Pittsburgh Penguins‘ defenceman Kris Letang‘s reputation precedes him. One of the longest-tenured members of the team, he’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion, eight-time All-Star (first and second team combined), and an IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship gold medalist. His 16 years in Pittsburgh make him one of the most popular and respected members of the franchise and in the community. He was also recently rewarded with a long-term extension for which he’ll be paid $36.6 million over six years.

Kris Letang Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh Penguins
Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate a goal (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Letang has given his entire professional life to the Penguins and has been rewarded time and time again; he’s been a rock for them and they now must be the same, as he unfortunately suffered a stroke and is now out indefinitely.

Letang’s Second Stroke During NHL Career

Letang was admitted to the hospital Monday (Nov. 28) after feeling ill, where he underwent a series of tests which confirmed he suffered the second stroke of his NHL career. His first came in 2014 at the age of 26 which resulted in him missing two months. It was discovered that the initial stroke may have been caused by a small hole in the lining of his heart. Luckily for him, the most recent incident was reportedly less severe than the first and he expects to be back as soon as possible. Despite his welcome optimism, he’ll nevertheless have to pause hockey activities for the foreseeable future.

Related: Is Kris Letang Elite?

The first time Letang dealt with this health scare in 2014, he capitalized on the opportunity to educate the public on the risks of strokes and other similar conditions. Upon making his condition public, he released a statement encouraging younger people to seek medical attention if they experience similar symptoms:

I hope that by making my condition public at this time, I can help other people by encouraging them to seek medical help if they experience some of the symptoms associated with a stroke — regardless of their age or general health.

Kris Letang advocates for young people to seek medical attention if they experience stroke symptoms, in response to his first stroke in 2014 (from ‘Why did 26-year-old Pittsburgh Penguin Kris Letang have a stroke?,’ Toronto Star, 07/02/2014).

Luckily, Letang was able to recognize what his body was trying to tell him and seek medical help quickly; as a result, Penguins’ management expects he will be back after some time and rest.

Penguins’ Defence Must Step Up in Letang’s Absence

The first thing that must be assured regarding this situation is Letang’s health. Fortunately, he was recently seen in attendance at the Penguins’ most recent games cheering on his teammates. Given his upcoming lengthy absence, the Penguins will be missing one of their stalwarts for the foreseeable future. Head coach Mike Sullivan has said that Letang’s absence will mean the entire defence will have to step up to fill the gap. Letang leads the team in ice time, averaging just over 25 minutes per game. In their first game without him, Brian Dumoulin was promoted to the first pair alongside Jeff Petry and Chad Ruhwedel found his way back onto the team’s third pair.

Chad Ruhwedel Pittsburgh Penguins
Chad Ruhwedel, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Letang’s illness does present an opportunity for some previously maligned prospects as well as those who could stand to see more time with the big club. General manager Ron Hextall referenced the Penguins’ depth and how it could serve as an advantage in this situation. The two most likely candidates to get the call-up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton are Mark Friedman and Ty Smith, the latter of whom was acquired this past offseason in a trade with the New Jersey Devils which saw John Marino bound for Newark. Smith seems the more probable of the two to see regular game action, as he serves as more of an accurate replacement for Letang in the sense that his offensive capability more closely matches that of the longtime Penguins’ star.

While the Penguins’ first priority is to ensure the long-term stability and health of Letang, they can rest a little easier knowing that he’s recovering well and that they have the personnel necessary to carry on without him so that he can take as much time as he needs.