KITCHENER, Ontario -- The signs had to be almost impossible to miss.
Kris Letang had averaged barely eight minutes of ice time during his most recent three appearances and had been a healthy scratch for two games in a row.
It's tough to interpret any of that as evidence that he should have been actively house-hunting.
Still, Letang admits that he was stung -- badly -- when Penguins officials informed him late in October that he was being returned to his junior team in Val d'Or, Quebec.
Even so, he didn't allow it to gnaw at him for long, which is why there never was any real danger that being sent back would curdle the rest of his season. And that hints at the kind of maturity that will serve Letang well as he tries to earn steady work on the Penguins' defense this season.
"For sure, it was a disappointment for me, but you don't have to [dwell] on it," he said. "It took me maybe two or three days [to get over it], I think. There's nothing you can do about it. I just told myself it was an opportunity to win some games in junior."
He did that, leading the Foreurs to the final of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs and captaining Canada to a gold medal at the world junior championships.
But even though Letang has exceptional skill and poise for a player his age, general manager Ray Shero says he "never second-guessed" the decision to put him back in junior for a final winter.
"Being a defenseman [in the NHL] is really difficult at 19 years old," Shero said. "Maybe Kris could have done it, but I really believe, long-term, this will be the best thing for him.
"You see the confidence he has now after going through the experiences he did last year."
Certainly, Letang's belief in his abilities was evident throughout most of the three games in which he participated in the four-team rookie tournament that ended with the Penguins' 5-1 victory against Ottawa in the championship game at Memorial Auditorium last night.
He endured some ragged stretches, to be sure -- his defensive work in the first period of the opener against Toronto Friday was undeniably weak -- but clearly has developed to a level most of the prospects in the tournament have not reached. And might never.
Still, while it could be argued that Letang had little to gain by competing in the tournament, he's convinced that he benefited from it.
"I'm getting into game shape," he said. "During the summer, you play, but it's more practice and stuff. I have to get in game shape. You have to play physical in your zone, and we don't do that during the summer."
Letang's offensive talents are unquestioned; his play in his own zone figures to be the pivotal factor in determining whether he starts the season with the Penguins or their minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre.
"That's an area of the game he has to be very strong in," Shero said.
The prevailing sentiment in most quarters is that a spot in the NHL is Letang's to lose, that he'll open the season with the Penguins unless he plays his way off the roster.
That might be, but Shero is adamant that the Penguins won't be unduly disappointed if he doesn't stick.
"We'll be patient with him," Shero said. "We're hoping he can play [in the NHL]. If not, it's not going to be the end of the world. It's not fatal."
It wouldn't be fatal, to be sure, but it would be more than a little frustrating for Letang, who still contends that "I really don't know" if going back to junior a year ago was good for his game, over the long term.
"I think I'm ready," Letang said. "I worked hard all summer to get a spot with the Pittsburgh Penguins. If I don't, I'll be disappointed."
Even more than he was in October.
NOTES -- Joe Jensen (two), Ryan Stone, Matt Caria and Kyle Rank scored for the Penguins, while Ilya Zubov was the only Senator to get a puck past goalie John Curry. ... The Penguins outshot Ottawa, 45-20, a day after losing to the Senators, 3-0, in their final round-robin game.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com