Penguins defenseman Letang out indefinitely with likely concussion
Kris Letang tangles Wednesday with Dallas' Steve Ott. Letang is suffering from concussion symptoms after a hit from forward Eric Nystrom later in the game.
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DENVER -- It was the first thing that ran through the mind of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma -- and likely anyone else who saw Kris Letang slumped onto the ice Wednesday night at American Airlines Center.
Did the hit delivered by Dallas forward Eric Nystrom leave the Penguins' top defenseman with his second concussion this season?
"The significance of the hit and Kris being on the ice -- that was the first thing that I thought of about that situation for Kris," Bylsma said Thursday after the Penguins practiced -- without Letang -- at Magness Arena.
"Whether you've had one [concussion] or you've had a couple before, you're concerned for the player and their health. He took a hard hit."
It turns out it's likely Letang does have another concussion. Bylsma said Letang was experiencing "some symptoms," and will miss the game Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche.
Letang, who watched practice in street clothes but did not speak with reporters, is expected to remain with the team and will be further evaluated when the Penguins return home after the Saturday night game.
Letang, 24, returned to the lineup Jan. 19 after missing 21 games because of a concussion that produced debilitating symptoms. He has nine goals, 31 points in 39 games and is a fixture on the point on the top power-play unit.
"He's arguably one of the top [defensemen] in the league," Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "He's such an important piece of our team. He plays big minutes against top lines, and he does it offensively and defensively.
"We're just keeping our fingers crossed that he'll be back soon in the lineup."
Letang's spot on the point probably will be taken by defenseman Matt Niskanen, Bylsma said, but that might only be half the solution.
The other point man on the Penguins' top power-play unit, forward Steve Sullivan, also missed practice and seems questionable for Saturday. He left the game Wednesday because of an unspecified injury.
If they're both out, Niskanen and defenseman Paul Martin could move up to the points on the top unit. Bylsma pointed to Michalek and forward Dustin Jeffrey, who has been a healthy scratch three of the past four games, as possible fill-ins on the second unit.
Another candidate, particularly if Letang is expected to be out for more than a game or two, is rookie Simon Despres.
The hulking defenseman, who was the Penguins' first-round draft pick in 2009, got some power-play time in his first 14 NHL games this season, and his only goal came with a man-advantage.
Despres was with the Penguins twice because of injuries to other defensemen but has been back in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton since he recovered from a knee injury that kept him out of 15 games. He could be recalled from the American Hockey League if Letang is put on injured reserve.
"With the number of games that we have left on the schedule, we certainly would consider having one of the players down there come up," Bylsma said. "Simon has been on the power play. He's been five-on-five against other teams' good guys. So, he certainly would be a candidate."
Nystrom, meanwhile, received a minor penalty for roughing on the play at 9:55 of the first period of the 4-3 shootout win against the Stars.
The NHL, which has cracked down on many hits to the head as a means to reduce concussions, declined to issue supplemental discipline against Nystrom.
Letang was playing or reaching for the puck near a corner of the Penguins end on a Dallas dump-in when Nystrom came flying in and made hard contact to Letang's head and/or chest. Nystrom did not have his elbows up.
"Brendan Shanahan's got a tough job," Niskanen said of the NHL's top disciplinarian.
"My first thought was that it was a hit to the head, but I'll have to watch it more. If he doesn't hit him the head, he might miss him completely. It's not black and white at all."
Michalek also thinks it's a tough call, but believes Nystrom bears some responsibility regardless of whether it was a legal hit.
"When the play happened, it happened so quickly," Michalek said. "It seemed like it was a direct head shot, but, on the replay, it's kind of 50-50. You could argue whether it was a head shot or not.
"The point is, he took advantage of a player in a bad position. He didn't even attempt to go for the puck. He just went straight for his body or his head.
"You have to be respectful of your opponent and make an honest play on the puck."
Nystrom defended himself in an interview with Dallas-ESPN.
"I'm coming in on the forecheck, I am going in to play the man and he is reaching in for the puck," he said.
"I didn't even touch his head. I hit him shoulder-to-shoulder."
First Published March 2, 2012 12:00 am