Point man: Penguins' Letang a Norris candidate
Kris Letang gives the Penguins the early advantage in a shootout Nov. 17 against Carolina.
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It was a three-step sequence one sees several times in any hockey game:
1. Defenseman pursues puck in his own end.
2. Forechecker pursues defenseman.
3. Defenseman retrieves puck and sends it back the other way.
No big deal, really.
Except when Kris Letang did it Jan. 15 in Boston.
With the Penguins protecting a 3-2 lead early in the third period, Letang and the Bruins' Brad Marchand skated hard toward the Penguins end for what -- momentarily, anyway -- appeared to be a 50-50 puck. Letang, with his back to Marchand, took his customary bonus stride to gain body position, turned his hips one way, then violently back the other way, then whirled his entire body 180 degrees.
Only to find about half the rink wide open. Marchand, the exasperated forechecker, had simply slogged back to the Bruins' bench.
The play still gets discussed internally.
"Oh, yeah, I remember," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, the man responsible for the team's defense. "It was like he created a whole open sheet of ice for himself."
"Yeah, lots of ice," Letang recalled with a smile. "That's what I like to see, when everything is calm ... making everything calm."
It is largely that trait, the ability to create what hockey coaches call "time and space," that has elevated Letang's game to where he now is a vital part of any debate involving the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's best defenseman.
Although Letang is the Penguins' second-leading scorer with eight goals and 38 assists, and his 46 points rank third among all NHL defensemen, his partner long has been adamant that Letang is not an offensive defenseman.
"What I've meant is that Kris isn't the type to go rushing up ice all by himself and score goals. How many times have you seen him do that?" defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "He's got the skill set to be great defensively. Everything starts with the way he's knocking guys off the puck, the way he's controlling it, the first pass, the ability to carry it ... he's getting it all done, not just putting up points."
There is other proof: Letang's plus-13 rating has no peer among the NHL's top 10 scoring defensemen, with the next highest figure at plus-2.
The coaching staff would have it no other way.
In mid-November, just before the Penguins went on a 12-game winning streak, Reirden suggested in a coaches' meeting that Letang and Orpik get matched up against the opponents' top forward line. It was not without risk: Give an offensive defenseman too much defensive responsibility, and a lot of those points can evaporate.
"This was not just about our short term, but also Kris' long term," Reirden said. "We felt this was the best way to push him to become the best, most complete player he can be. And he wants it. There's no one that I have who spends more time watching video than Kris. He's studying everything."
Perhaps exceeding expectations, Letang embraced the role and, at times, has been a shutdown-type. He rarely is beaten one-on-one and, even when that happens, has ample speed to overcome mistakes. He is aggressive in standing up forwards at the blue line and, near the net, has been surprisingly effective.
"He's mean, too, out in front," former Penguins coach Eddie Johnston said.
The real separator is that time-and-space factor: Once Letang gets the puck, rather than just flicking it off the glass or icing it, he will pause, look around and pass it to a forward. The Penguins' emphasis this season, following the acquisition of other mobile defensemen such as Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, has been on exactly this type of rapid-fire breakout.
"It's been a challenge, but I enjoy it," Letang said. "This year, I've been put in a lot of positions where I have to be responsible, always aware who I'm playing against. I've always put the defense first, though."
Letang also has a soft touch around the net, best evident, perhaps, by his ability to be one of just three NHL defensemen who takes a regular turn in shootouts, in which he is 3 for 8. That comes in part from his days as a forward -- he converted to defense "just to try something new" before beginning his junior career with Val-d'Or of the Quebec League -- and in part from practicing a wide array of moves.
"I can't really explain that," Letang said. "Mostly, I just try to sell a shot."
Some close to Letang say he always has liked being the man on his team. But that was not about to happen for a newcomer on a roster that included Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and loads of veteran presence.
"You're not going to walk in and be a leader here," Letang said, laughing.
And, really, it was not going to happen on the Penguins' blue line so long as Sergei Gonchar was around. Gonchar was the 35-year-old All-Star, the fixture on the power-play point, the man who led or started most rushes. And Letang, upon his rookie arrival in 2006, needed time to adjust.
That began to change with the 2009 run to the Stanley Cup, in which Letang had 13 playoff points.
"That was when I knew I could go to a new level," he said.
It blossomed fully this season, after the Penguins cut ties with Gonchar.
"It's hard to say. Maybe it did help," Letang said. "I'm on the power play all the time now, and maybe I wouldn't have gotten that chance. But when I think about Gonch, all I think about is how much he helped me. He was a great teammate and great friend, and he taught me so much, especially about the point."
"Sometimes, a player needs to be the guy," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "I know Kris liked playing with Gonch, but maybe it was what he needed, to play more, to have more responsibility."
"That's a big part of it, just giving him freedom," left winger Max Talbot said. "But all kinds of things lead to maturity. He's only 23. Sid was mature when he was 18 because he'd been living with that for so long. Kris played in Val-d'Or, a little town in Quebec, and he comes here to a whole new world."
Val-d'Or was another world in the cultural -- all French-speaking -- and hockey senses, but it also had its similarities.
"The first time I saw Kris skating, I said, 'Holy cow, he's like Paul Coffey!' " recalled Eric Lavigne, Letang's junior coach at Val-d'Or, now with Prince Edward Island. "But then, what impressed you the most was that, at the end of practice, he was never, ever tired. He was the first guy on the ice, finished all the drills first, and he was never tired."
The next step up for Letang came with his second trip to the World Junior Championships in 2007, in which he captained Canada's gold-medal team. He was only the second French-Canadian captain in the junior national team's history, perhaps because of the cultural divide.
"I didn't really go there and say I want to be a leader. But I had the NHL experience already, compared to other guys, and I thought maybe that could help," Letang said. He had played seven games with the Penguins before that tournament. "I'm not a guy who jokes around, plays around. And I wanted to show everybody how I thought it should be done right."
The junior world noticed.
"If you were his teammate, you didn't have any choice but to follow him," Lavigne said. "He didn't say much but, when you are beside this guy, you feel his confidence. He grew up a lot there."
Letang has acknowledged growing up, too, with the tragic death of Luc Bourdon, a Vancouver prospect who was his best friend and teammate with Val-d'Or, killed in a motorcycle accident in May 2008.
"It's so tough to me," Letang said at the time, when the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup final. "Even if I wanted to skate, I couldn't ... it's like I lost so much energy."
It is not something Letang discusses anymore, but his teammates have recognized a deep resonance from it: He became even more serious, his English improved, his confidence rose and, now, he might be ready for something else.
For all the many individual honors the Penguins have won over the years, there has been only one to claim the Norris Trophy: Randy Carlyle in 1981. He was a good, not great defenseman, who contributed to a generally superb power play that year and produced 83 points.
What Letang is doing is different, and that is why he now is mentioned casually in the same sentence as Detroit's brilliant Nicklas Lidstrom.
"To me, it's him and Nick Lidstrom as runaways for the Norris, really," said Boston right winger Mark Recchi, once Letang's teammate with the Penguins. "They play against tough lines all the time. You look around, and the other defensemen with big numbers don't play against those tough lines. Letang and Orpik do that every night."
Count Lidstrom among the admirers, too.
"He's very good with the puck, a good skater, and he competes out there," Detroit's six-time Norris winner said. "He's also very good at reading plays, getting up in the play and moving around, whether it's on the power play at the blue line or being part of the rush. He's a very good defenseman."
Bringing up the Norris in the locker room seems taboo, as coaches and teammates sound loath to do or say anything that changes Letang's fortunes. As Talbot put it: "It's an 82-game season, and you know you need to play really consistently to win that kind of trophy. Why talk about it now?"
Letang is little different.
"Honestly, it's really unbelievable when I hear or read that," he said. "To me, there are so many great defensemen, and Lidstrom is one of the greatest to ever play the game. But you know, I'm really not thinking about that. I just want to be the best I can be."
First Published March 1, 2011 12:00 am