When Letang is healthy, he’s a Norris Trophy candidate. This season has been no different—he’s tallied three goals and 28 points and is plus-11 in 27 games.
The problem is, though, that he can’t stay healthy. Letang left the Penguins’ March 17 game versus the Boston Bruins and hasn’t played since.
This has started to become a recurring problem for Letang. He struggled with injuries last season and missed over 30 games.
A healthy Letang is a difference-maker, though. He’s one of the most reliable players on both sides of the ice. He knows the game, making him adept at breaking up plays in the neutral and defensive zones, while also creating plays on offense and racking up assists.
Plenty of teams would love to make a move for Letang. With the absence of Chris Pronger, cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers are in need of a top blueliner like Letang. The Flyers would appreciate his offensive contributions, but they’re desperate for a defenseman capable of logging minutes like Letang can.
It’s hard to say how much interest the Penguins have in Philly’s prospects. That said, it’s possible they could try to secure the Flyers’ first-round draft pick and a potential winger for the duo of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.
At this rate, they’ll end up in the basement at the end of the season—meaning they’re likely to get a high first-round pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
While trading for a winger for Malkin and Neal would be nice, the Penguins offense is plenty stacked. Acquiring a top-five pick in this year’s draft would help make sure the club remains stacked for the foreseeable future.
Pittsburgh has had plenty of success in the draft, after all. They managed to land four consecutive top-two picks in 2003 and 2006—brining Stanley Cup champions Marc-Andre Fleury, Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal into the fold.
While Ray Shero wasn't hired until 2006 and wasn't involved in landing those superstars, his success when making trades should assure the Penguins get a high pick to continue on with their great drafting.
They’ve been very successful since then. The highest pick they’ve had since 2006 was Carolina’s eighth overall pick that yielded Derrick Pouliot.
It wouldn’t be easy to send Letang packing. The Penguins would miss him, but not for long. They have plenty of offensive depth among their prospects.
Pouliot was one of the top offensive defensemen in his draft class. When he debuts in Pittsburgh in a few seasons, he’ll be a force similar to Letang.
Other prospects, like this season’s call-up Simon Despres and Wilkes-Barre blueliner Joe Morrow, play a more two-way game. They’re both capable of playing in any situation head coach Dan Bylsma could put them.
Even if Pouliot isn’t able to be an offensive d-man the same caliber as Letang, their prospects would be able to fill the gap he’d leave within two seasons.
For the time being, Paul Martin is holding the Penguins together as their top defenseman. He’s playing the sound defensive role they’re paying him $5 million for and is becoming much more of an offensive threat, especially on the power play.
Even before Letang’s injury, Martin started to cut into his power-play time. There’s no reason to believe there’s a huge drop off from Letang to Martin.
Unless they get a very lopsided proposal in their favor, it’s unlikely that the Penguins trade Letang before the playoffs. Even with Martin’s turnaround this season, they shouldn’t rely on him after his abysmal performance during the Penguins’ brief postseason stint last season.
Letang’s unrestricted free-agent status in the summer of 2014 offsets some of his trade value, though. His price is guaranteed to increase from the $3.5 million the Penguins are currently paying him.
With superstars like Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Neal on their roster, the Penguins will have to make sacrifices to stay under the cap limit.
Considering the defensive depth the Penguins’ prospects have, it could pay off big time to exchange Letang for a draft pick. If it results in someone even as good as Jordan Staal, let alone another forward akin to Malkin, I’d call it a success.