Penguins Rookie Minicamp: Letang hopes to stick on Penguins' defense

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It was only seven games, but any experience in the NHL makes a player in junior hockey a magnet for questions from teammates.

Defenseman Kris Letang was in that situation last season. He made the Penguins' roster out of training camp and picked up his first two NHL goals before being returned to Val d'Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Players there and with Team Canada's entry in the 2007 World Junior Championships wanted to hear about Letang's NHL experience, one aspect in particular.

"The questions all were about the money," Letang said yesterday after joining the Penguins' rookie conditioning camp.

Well, maybe a few other things.

"They said, 'What's the difference between juniors and the NHL?' " Letang said. "I said, 'The guys are fast, quick. The game is faster than junior.' "

Letang, who missed the start of the conditioning camp because he was in Calgary with his Team Canada teammates getting their championship rings, could find himself in the same kind of spotlight this week. He is the only one in the camp who has played in the NHL.

He also is the one who is most likely to make the Penguins' roster coming out of training camp.

There is widespread expectation within and outside the organization that Letang will, or at least has a strong chance to, become one of the team's regular six defensemen in 2007-08.

That is based on his performance at training camp last summer that led the Penguins to include him on their roster to open the season, on what he did after being returned to juniors and the simple fact that it is reasonable to presume he will be one year better.

He had 14 goals, 52 points in 40 games and a plus-minus rating of plus-19 with the Foreurs, was named a QMJHL all-star and won the league's Bouchard Trophy as the top defenseman. At the world juniors, he had six points, all assists, and was named one of Canada's top three players and one of the tournament's top players.

After the junior playoffs, he joined the Penguins' minor-league affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but was only with the Baby Penguins one game before they got bounced from the American Hockey League playoffs.

"Last year, I was here for one month. I think I learned a lot of things," said Letang, 20, a right-handed shot who was selected by the Penguins in the third round of the 2005 draft. "Right now, I'm training hard to make my place again. Hopefully, it will be to stay here all season."

He pointed to his defensive play, particularly positioning in the defensive zone, as the area in which he needs to improve the most from last year.

"I think I'm very patient with the puck. I can skate very well," Letang said. "That's my game."

While forward Jordan Staal convinced the Penguins to keep him around all season instead of being sent back to juniors, Letang said he quickly got over his diminished playing time and subsequent demotion.

"Maybe when you're not playing too much, 10 minutes a game or something, you lose a little of your confidence," he said. "When I got back [to Val d'Or], I told myself to keep going and work hard and get ready for next year.

"I think I'm more confident. I learned a lot from [Sidney] Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin, [Sergei] Gonchar, [Mark] Recchi, all these guys.

"I don't put any pressure on me, but I told myself to be ready and be the best I can be for camp. The only thing I want is to make the team and stay here."

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Penguins prospect Kris Letang participates in a rookie camp yesterday at Southpointe. Letang hopes to make the team as a defenseman.
Click photo for larger image.

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Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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