Cook: Letang knows he must avoid extra hits

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What seems more likely? That the Penguins' Kris Letang will win five Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defenseman? Or that he will last 10 more seasons in the league?

I'm thinking the trophies are a real possibility for Letang. I'm not sure about his longevity. I watch the ferocious way he plays the game and I worry about his long-term future even though he's just 25. So does Penguins management, at least to a degree.

Everybody inside the organization and out agrees Letang is an extraordinary talent. If it's a stretch to suggest he's as important to the Penguins' future as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it isn't much of one. Crosby is locked up for the long haul. Malkin and Letang are signed for this season and next and are eligible for new long-term deals in July. General manager Ray Shero needs to find a way under the salary cap in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to get those deals done.

But the concerns about Letang being able to stay healthy are legitimate. He isn't a big man, but he plays as big as anyone on the Penguins. He doesn't try to avoid unnecessary contact. He tries to initiate it, to the point of being reckless at times.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma appreciates the physical game as much as anyone. He loves Letang's passion. But he has talked to him about taking unnecessary risks. He knows Letang is valuable to the team only when he's on the ice.

Like Crosby, Letang has a concussion in his recent past. In a game Nov. 26, 2011, at Montreal, he took a wicked open-ice hit from the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty. Check it out on YouTube, but be warned that the blood gushing onto the ice from Letang's broken nose might not do much for your breakfast. Letang came back in the game and scored the goal in overtime that gave the Penguins a 4-3 win. Pacioretty, who wasn't penalized for the hit, was suspended for three games by the NHL after a review. It hardly seemed like enough punishment when Letang missed the next 21 games with concussion symptoms. Not surprising, the Penguins went 10-11 without him.

"Of course they want me to stay healthy," Letang said of Shero and Bylsma, not to mention everyone else with the team.

Letang is all for it. Who likes getting concussed? But Letang quickly shook his head when asked if he worries about his career being shortened by injury. He's going to continue to hit and be hit and take his chances.

"What is that saying? Live your life to the fullest?" Letang asked. "That's the way I see it. I'm always going to leave everything on the ice. I don't want the day to come when I look back and say, 'You were thinking about yourself instead of the team. You didn't make a play to help the team win because you were worried about getting injured.' "

That doesn't mean Letang won't make subtle changes.

"I need to control my emotions a little better," he said. "I need to be a little bit smarter and play from whistle to whistle. I need to calm myself down after the whistle and not get involved in the extra stuff."

There's nothing else about Letang's game that needs to be fixed. He had a pretty good start toward his first Norris before Pacioretty took him out with that cheap hit. As noted, he's a fabulous skater. He has a big shot. He runs the power play. He clearly has a wonderful chemistry with Crosby.

"I feel really good about our lineup," Letang said. "I'm pretty confident with whoever is on the ice for us. I know we're 10 times better than we played [against the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs last season]."

Letang did everything he could to get ready for the delayed season, which begins Saturday afternoon against those same Flyers in Philadelphia. There were no worries that he wouldn't be in shape when the Penguins reported Sunday for the start of their abbreviated training camp. He skated in Montreal with other NHL players during the lockout. He also trained with rising MMA star Rory MacDonald, trying to become even quicker on the ice. "In his sport, he has to be able to move fast from side to side," Letang said. "It's the same with me. I'm always looking to close a gap quickly."

This is Letang's sixth NHL season. He said it's time he shows more leadership in the room and on the ice. That shouldn't be difficult. He has earned his teammates' respect.

But Letang must stay healthy.

The long, seemingly endless offseason did have an especially eventful moment for Letang. He became a first-time father. His son, Alexander, was born Nov. 23.

Here's hoping his old man still is playing for the Penguins when the kid turns 10.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published January 18, 2013 5:00 AM


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