Are the Pittsburgh Penguins Better Defensively Without Kris Letang?

The Pittsburgh Penguins may be better defensively without Kris Letang. His top priority is to rack up as many points as he can in each game that he plays. Letang’s style of play shows that he doesn’t care much about his defensive reputation He moves up on every offensive rush, and attempts to get involved in the offense at every opportunity. Up to this point in the season, Letang’s statistics show he hasn’t changed his mentality or plans to improve his defensive flaws.

Are the Pittsburgh Penguins a better defensive team without Kris Letang? (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Are the Pittsburgh Penguins better defensively without Kris Letang? (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Letang is a minus-four through eight games played this season. His plus-minus rating has been even or minus in seven of those games. If you’re not a believer in plus/minus rating, and feel it is a phony statistic, Letang hasn’t contributed offensively as much as we’re accustomed to seeing either. He can at least keep pucks out of his own net if he isn’t going to contribute offensively at the same pace as he did last year.

The most startling statistic is that the Pens were 7-2 prior to Letang’s return from injury. Even though the Pens have played better competition of late, since Letang returned to the line-up, the Pens are a .500 team. They’ve surrendered 20 goals in eight games going 4-4. The Pens have experienced the same defensive issues that plagued them over the past few seasons.

Not to pick on Letang, but his hockey mentality is the epitome of the rest of the Pens’ roster. This only makes sense considering the $58 million contract signed by Letang in the off-season. This deal solidified Letang as one of the faces and leaders of the team. If offense is of greatest importance to the Pens’ highest profiled defenseman, the rest of the defensive corps is going to follow in his footsteps.

Letang returned on October 25th against the New York Islanders. At that time Matt Niskanen was tied atop the NHL in plus minus rating with a +10. He’s been in trade rumors since the summer, but Niskanen was playing at the highest level ever seen from him in a Penguins’ jersey. Since the return of Letang, Niskanen’s play has declined and he’s been paired with Letang many times since the injury to Rob Scuderi. Niskanen is a minus-two with Letang in the line-up, and a minus-four over his past two games. Niskanen has been guilty of committing too many turnovers and was solely responsible for the first goal yielded by the Pens against the St. Louis Blues Saturday.

The Pens showed great commitment to team defense at the beginning of this season. The entire team was willing to play disciplined hockey to prevent fewer goals than in years past. The Pens were soundly playing a left-wing lock and 1-3-1 neutral zone trap when the situation presented itself at the beginning of the season.

Since Letang was activated into the line-up, the team has shown carelessness with the puck and their attention to defensive detail has been lackluster. In my eyes, this is no coincidence when considering that Letang logs the second most average ice-time of any player on the team behind Paul Martin. Letang will eventually average the most ice time before the season ends. The other players are falling prey to Letang’s blueprint. He is someone who forces stretch passes rather than making the safe play or clearing the puck out of the defensive-zone. In an effort to make a fancy play, Letang will risk a turnover at the blue-line entering an opponent’s defensive-zone . Instead, he needs to make the correct play and dump the puck deep into the offensive zone when the Pens don’t have an odd-man rush.

Blake Wheeler Jets
Kris Letang’s defense must improve if the Pittsburgh Penguins want to win a Stanley Cup. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

Letang has the most talent in the league, but he deserves to be under the microscope until he proves he’s made some individual changes for the betterment of the team. He was on the ice for half of the goals given up by the Pens in last year’s post-season. Again this season, Letang is failing to convince me that playing better defense is one of his priorities. With that being the case, why should any Pens’ fan believe the Pens will have a better playoff  fate than a year ago? My biggest concern with Letang is his decision-making with and without the puck. The physical attributes are there, but unfortunately Letang will more than likely play with the same risk-reward mentality for the rest of his career.

I don’t want the Pens to get rid of Letang. He’s an immense talent, but the coaching staff has to get him to alter his game if the Penguins want to win a Stanley Cup. The Pens’ players will be the first ones to admit that anything less than winning a Stanley Cup is not accomplishing the organizational goals for this season. As the defensive cornerstone of the team, until Letang dramatically transforms his game, the Pens will go through the same playoff struggles.