Saturday, April 9, 2016

Kris Letang is clearly one of the NHL's best defensemen

By Larry Wigge

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can change the complexion of a game ... just like that. Kris Letang is a difference maker or a quarterback as well.

At 6-0, 201-pounds, Letang orchestrates the Pittsburgh Penguins offense.

In each game you can find several game-changing differences that this little defenseman can affect.

Let me take you back to about 3 minutes of the Penguins 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators April 5 or their 4-3 overtime decision at Washington two nights later.

As usual Letang was at his best against Ottawa with two assists, but it was his game-saving save on Alex Chiasson's shot near the goal line with the scored tied 3-3 and 6:10 remaining that turned a potential loss into a victory and against the Capitals it was Letang's long pass that sent Crosby in for the winning goal in overtime.

In truth, Letang changes the complexion of each game.

"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go."

Crosby adds, "You see how many minutes he logs a game and how important those minutes are --– he's playing power play, penalty kill, he does it all. I think everybody recognizes when he's on the ice and what he generates and the way he can control a game."

"I like to be dynamic. I like to be on the rush," Letang admitted. "Sometimes we're not winning or we're trailing or I don’t see our game creating chances and stuff like that, so I try to go and I try to do something more and I try to bring a little more to the table.

"You're not going to beat five guys on your own. You have to play the same way, the same game and things will open up."

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.

Going into the final game of the season, Letang had 16 goals and 51 assists -- career highs in goals, assists and points. To be more exact, Kris had 11 goals and 43 assists in 16 of the Penguins' victories and was a plus 22 in those wins.

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."

Stopping Chiasson's shot from crossing the goal line wasn't nearly as tragic as Letang brush with death on January 29, 2013, when his wife, Catharine, awoke to find her husband lying on the floor of their bedroom.

Catherine summoned her mother, who is a nurse and was visiting the Letangs, and they elected not to call 9-1-1.

When his condition was made public February 7, it was announced Letang would be re-evaluated in six weeks. Doctors also discovered a small hole in his heart that could have contributed to the stroke.

"The hole in the heart, actually, it’s not a problem because I’ve been living with it for 26 years. I’ve never had a problem with that conditioning-wise or anything like that," he said. "The symptoms that I'm experiencing right now are from that stroke, what it damaged or did to my brain. For now, it’s just worrying about my head."

Letang remained on blood thinners -- and the likelihood of him returning to the ice without some strong offseason training. Which Letang followed to a tee.

That was the decision making part of Kris Letang's future -- a moment in time, which gave him change ... or, at least, the designs in change.

You could put his decision-making as the best part of his job.

"Playing against the top lines. Going to Washington and knowing that I'm going to be matched against one of the best players in the league Alexander Ovechkin," Letang pictured.

He did it against the Capitals in the next to the last game of the season.

"We try to talk to him about playing within himself and being a little bit more calculated with his decision-making," coach Mike Sullivan said. "When he does try to do too much, it's usually the result of because he's trying to make a difference. But in some instances, and this has been my constant dialogue with him, sometimes less is more. When he recognizes that, we think he plays an efficient game."

Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Sergei Gonchar have preceded Letang as quality defensemen in Pittsburgh.

"In my opinion, he deserves to be a Norris Trophy candidate because of all the numbers that he puts up, because of his workload, because of how much better he's become as a player," said Gonchar.

Too often recently, the Norris Trophy has been given to only the best offensive defenseman. Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and Montreal's P.K. Subban have won. Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Nick Lidstrom and Duncan Keith and Zdeno Chara have been named. Kris Letang has grown into one of those offensive and defensive defenseman.

Letang was that one-dimensional defenseman when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 ... but oh how he has grown.

" 'Gonch brought me clips of Nicklas Lidstrom, how he plays defensively," Letang said. "He's a guy that was not hitting a lot. He was just always in good position so we looked at that. Offensively, we look at a guy like Karlsson, who shoots the puck every time it goes on his stick and that’s how he creates his offense.

"We look at different players. Everybody brings different things to the table, so we try to pick and choose what to work on."

Copying the greats of the game is something new to Letang ... but it is not without criticism.

"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."

Former coach Dan 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."

New Jersey GM Ray Shero says he like Letang's progress better than when he was with the Penguins.

"I like what I see," Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. They should be good for him.

"He's a puck-moving guy which, for us moving forward as an organization, we'll be looking for more guys like that."

Kris Letang clearly belongs in the Crosby-Malkin scenario of great players.

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.

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