Penguins' Letang remains on fast track
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OTTAWA -- Kris Letang lurched forward, eyes wide, and guffawed when he was told what a Penguins teammate had said about him 20 minutes earlier.
"He's the best [defenseman] now in the league," center Evgeni Malkin declared.
Letang, who along with Malkin and winger James Neal are representing the Penguins as All-Stars this weekend, wasn't ready to hear that.
But he was ready to acknowledge that, at 24, he has been able to develop his game a great deal since he was a third-round Penguins draft pick in 2005. He is a strong two-way defenseman and the power-play quarterback.
Letang trotted out a list of people who have been instrumental in his pro career, a list so long that if this had been an awards show rather than a large media event Friday, music would have started playing.
"I had great coaches," he said. "[Former Penguins coach] Michel Therrien helped me a lot, and Mike Yeo [now the Minnesota head coach]. I have [assistant] Todd Reirden, who works with me every day. We watch video every day together. [Coach] Dan Bylsma helps me a lot.
"[Former Penguins defenseman] Sergei Gonchar has been a great mentor to me. He talked to me pretty much every game while he was playing with us.
"It was just a question of learning. A defenseman sometimes take a little bit longer. But every day I stepped on the ice, I was learning. It's been a whole process of having those people around me."
Letang was named as a replacement All-Star player earlier this week. That's not a major surprise considering his talent.
The astounding part is that when the NHL named the bulk of the All-Stars, filling in after fans voted for the top six players, it was farfetched to think Letang would be able to participate this weekend, much less come roaring back from a concussion and play at an All-Star level leading into the exhibition.
He was out from Nov. 26, when he took a thundering hit from Montreal's Max Pacioretty, to Jan. 19. In four games since his return -- all wins, part of a seven-game streak -- Letang has two goals (one on a power play), four points and a plus-minus rating of plus-3.
That's just the paper version.
He has skated fast and strong and has been crisp moving the puck.
That's just the offensive version.
He has been physical and played well in his own end. Along with his 12 shots in those four games, he has six hits and six blocked shots.
"He's known for his offensive abilities, but we know how good he is defensively," Neal said. "It was tough playing without him for a long stretch with his concussion. He just gives a big boost back to our lineup."
Letang has been so good so far in his comeback from injury that he caught his teammates off-guard.
"It's a little bit of a surprise," Malkin said. "But, when we saw the way Sid [Crosby] came back [from a concussion], it was a little bit of a surprise, too. Kris [has] played great. They help us in both zones. They do a great job on [defense] and they help on the power play."
While Crosby remains out of the Penguins lineup because of a recurrence of concussion symptoms, they aren't as he describes them, as severe as those Letang experienced for a while after the Pacioretty hit. Letang had dizziness, nausea, light sensitivity -- enough to keep him from even the lightest workouts.
When was able to resume light exercise, then start skating, he bounced back physically in a way that Bylsma said amazed him. That has carried over into games.
Letang credits his rigorous, nearly obsessive, offseason workouts.
"I've been talking with David Perron from the St. Louis Blues," he said. "He had a concussion for a year. He said he didn't have a chance to work out and, when he has back-to-back games, he doesn't feel that good. From not working out in the summer, you might see it in your game, in your body."
Letang was so strong that he got cleared for contact and for games all at once and needed only a practice and a couple of game-day skates before he jumped back in the lineup. He has played between 24 and 28 minutes a game since his return.
"When you work out hard all summer, it's not only to get to training camp and have good testing; it's to go all the way through the season," he said. "Working out like that every summer, for my injury, that kept me in shape, and I was ready to go because I was still in shape."