By Larry Wigge
No matter how much offensive potential you have up front, the key is to find an offensive triggerman to make the any offense click.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have two of the game top headliners in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a load of other key pieces. But the playmaker who orchestrates the offense is a 6-0 foot, 201-pound named Kris Letang, a magical little defenseman who uses creativity and vision to rush the puck to set up Crosby and Malkin.
"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go."
All great playmakers ad lib improvising. Letang can often be found working his magic in and around the net, at the mid-boards or at either of the point positions.
Some have said Kris Letang was too small to play in the big man's game. Others criticize him for becoming a better game on defense to rival his offensive numbers. Others simply say the Penguins have unleashed their latest pit bull on the rest of the NHL.
To think, it wasn't until midget hockey that Letang grew from 5-9 to 6-0 feet tall and was switched from forward to defense. He was just developing on defense when when was the 61st chosen by the Penguins in the third-round of NHL Entry Draft in 2005.
"I was 5-9, 155 pounds when I switched to defense," the Montreal native explained. "I was still pretty small -- 5-10, 185 pounds when I was drafted. I worked out each year to build myself up. I don't want to be the small player."
It's the evolution of Letang's defensive game that has earned him a place in this team's core, making him a considerable candidate in the Norris Trophy race for the best defenseman in the game. He's a very smart power-play quarterback and plays a clean, efficient, mistake-free game. He's a very subtle player, but very underrated. His poise under pressure, neat spin moves and great puck movement decisions give him a good shot to overcome the size handicap.
Last season, Letang was an offensive dynamo -- scoring eight goals and 42 assists for 50 points. He totaled 101 penalty minutes and produced an impressive plus-15. He produced only nine points after Jan. 12 last season, a finish as frustrating as the start that earned him a first All-Star Game selection was strong.
This season, he was on pace to crack down on all of those statistics -- and that came after he was sidelined with a concussion suffered at the hands of Montreal Max Pacioretty on November 26. Kris had dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity -- enough to keep him from even the lightest workouts. Since coming back on January 19, Kris has two goals, four points and a plus-minus rating of plus-3, along with six hit and 12 blocked shots, after missing 21 games. All four games back were Penguins wins.
"Kris is a guy who's always had the talent, the skating, the bite to his game. And now we're seeing the package," said coach Dan Bylsma.
Kris Letang came in his fifth season of pro hockey and 23. He has cast aside the shadows of Sergie Gonchar, who left as a free agent to Ottawa, and is remarkably like a young Nicklas Lidstrom on defense.
"When I broke into the lineup a couple of season's back, I was not using my skating ability," Letang explained. "I always had my head up, looking to make plays.
"Now, with the players around me, I'm always looking to make a great play. I have that confidence now. Defensively, I think I'm getting better. I'm playing against better players now than I was three years ago. I think I'm improving every day."
"I like what I see," GM Ray Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. He's a puck-moving guy -- a really good puck-moving guy."
Letang's modest size means he must learn to use leverage and body position to neutralize opposing forwards.
"For my concussion, I've been through a month with a lot of symptoms and not being able to get out of bed," he said. "It was rough times. But as I was getting better and starting to get treated by different people, it just went better and better."
So what most scouts saw when they watched Letang play for Val d'Or in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2004-05 season was a smallish defenseman who showed flashes of promise, but who didn't seem any more intriguing than a lot of other teenaged prospects.
"The guys picked ahead of me were like 6 feet 1, 200 pounds," Letang said. "Now it's based on skating and skill, so I'd probably be drafted higher than the third round."
Bylsma saw the bigger is better -- and much, much more.
"We've talked about how good he can be," said Bylsma "His development isn't a shock to us. Every time he goes over the boards, as far as we're concerned, he's now a shutdown defenseman. The great thing is, Kris still has a long way to go. As good as Kris is, he's going to get better."
"My skating ability, how I see everything, how I see the ice," Letang said, "It's a big part of my game. I'm not a real quick skater. I'm a more powerful skater."
Kris said his overall play came in the playoffs. Postseason play is foremost on his mind now.
"It's a pretty high moment in my career, but it's just like any player," Letang said. "I want to improve my game and certain aspects. Every year I want to take more and more like a place in the dressing room and be an impact player.
"I want to give my 100 percent the whole shift. I don't want to do any coasting. I trained this summer to be able to go at a full pace for the full amount of time I spend on the ice."
Growing up, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were his favorite players.
"Mario came over and talked to me and gave me a lot of tips," Letang explained. "Even now that he’s retired, he still stops in our locker room all the time to make sure we’re never too nervous about a game."
Kris Letang has grown up a lot.
"When I was 5 my Mom (Christiane) was carrying me everywhere," Letang recalled with fondness. "I alawys had a passion for the game of hockey."
Watch for Kris Letang, that little defenseman wearing No. 57, to be orchestrating another Pittsburgh Penguins attack.