UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Penguins veteran defenseman Mark Eaton has been paired with Kris Letang at times over the past several years, including the team's run to the 2009 Stanley Cup. There was a gap, though, when Eaton spent two seasons with the New York Islanders.
Look at how things have changed. Eaton rejoined the Penguins this season, the Islanders are the opposition in a first-round playoff series, and Letang has become one of the best at his craft.
Letang, 26, was one of three finalists announced Tuesday for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the top defenseman in the NHL, and Eaton can see why.
Letang has harnessed his speed, learned to do his homework and dedicated himself to being sound defensively. Perhaps most important, he blends offense and defense at a high level without leaving his teammates vulnerable.
"Being two years removed, that was probably one of the biggest factors I saw with his maturity and his ability to read plays," Eaton said. "There's very little risk in his game. He can create offense without being out of position or sacrificing defense."
That didn't happen in a season, or even three.
"It's been a long process," Letang said.
Letang had no points but had three blocked shots and three takeaways Tuesday night in the Penguins' 6-4 loss against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum in Game 4. He has a goal and two assists in the series.
The other Norris finalists are P.K. Subban of Montreal and Ryan Suter of Minnesota. All three are first-time finalists.
Letang was a third-round draft pick by the Penguins in 2005, and they set about teaching him to blend his skill with a strong defensive side.
"Early on, that was really his main focus when he talked about his game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's done a great job of that. He does that both physically and with his skating ability. His skating is right up there, second to none."
It wasn't until well after he won a Cup with the Penguins that Letang met with Todd Reirden, an assistant who coaches the defensemen.
"Three years [ago], me and Todd came up with a plan [for me] to become one of the best defenseman, but we went through some steps," Letang said. "I tried to get better with off-ice training, video sessions, stuff like that.
"We worked on my defensive game after practice, little details. Every day, I'm watching videos of either the games, other players or habits I need to get in."
He likes studying video of retired stars Nicklas Lidstrom, who won seven Norris trophies and Scott Niedermayer, who won one.
The Norris, decided in a vote by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, generally goes to an offensively gifted defenseman and is based on regular-season performance.
Letang and Subban each had 38 points, more than any other defensemen, and Letang led players at his position with 33 assists. Letang had a plus-minus rating of plus-16, had just eight penalty minutes and ranked seventh in the NHL with an average ice time of 25 minutes, 38 seconds.
But Letang, who had leg and foot injuries, played in only 35 of the Penguins' 48 games in this lockout-shortened season, making his numbers and his status as a Norris finalists all the more telling.
"It's definitely his all-around game," Eaton said of Letang. "To be nominated for that, you can't just be an offensive guy. You have to be able to be relied upon in your defensive zone. He kills penalties. He runs the power play. He does it all for us."
Letang said getting points sometimes is simply a byproduct of working well with the team's stars on offense, such as on the power play.
"But I don't think it's that important," he said of getting goals and assists. "As a [defenseman,] you need to be good everywhere on the ice. You need to play in every situation, play against a top line every night. I think that's the ultimate goal for every defenseman -- playing on the [penalty-kill], power play and playing against top lines, playing well defensively."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published May 8, 2013 4:00 AM