Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: Would the Penguins Be Better off Without Kris Letang?

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Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: Would the Penguins Be Better off Without Kris Letang?
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero wasn’t far from trading defenseman Kris Letang in the days leading up to the 2013 draft, if you believe the various reports that were out there at the time. The two were negotiating a long-term contract extension and if the gap wasn’t bridged in due time, Shero had a tough decision on his hands. 

Should he trade one of the game’s premiere offensive defenseman a year before he reaches unrestricted free agency? Or should he meet Letang in the middle and get him signed to an eight-year extension?

Shero chose the latter, inking Letang to an eight-year, $58 million extension that starts in 2014-15. The $7.25 million cap hit is the third highest in the league among defensemen.

Dave Sandford/Getty Images
Ray Shero signed Kris Letang to an eight-year contract extension this past offseason, but he may consider trading him this offseason.

Letang wanted a no-trade clause, but Shero wasn’t willing to do that. Instead, according to reports, Letang has a list of 17 teams to which he would accept a trade should the Penguins decide to go that route.

The fact that Shero would not budge on a full no-trade clause during the negotiation leads to an interesting question—would he consider trading Letang after this season for the right package? After all, if Shero had no interest in trading Letang, why fight so hard during the negotiation to keep that option open?

Based on the team’s performance without Letang and several key defensemen for long stretches this season and last, it’s something Shero should strongly contemplate, either before or after the limited no-trade clause activates.

The 26-year-old is not your traditional No. 1 defenseman. Letang logs the second-most minutes on the team, but they are somewhat sheltered minutes. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin serve as the team’s primary pair against top lines and on the penalty kill while Letang generally draws lesser opponents and works on the second penalty-killing unit.

Where Letang’s true value lies is on the power play and as a defenseman capable of delivering offense at even strength. He is one of the best on the back end in that regard, which is what makes him a special case as a so-called “No. 1 defenseman,” if you even want to consider him that.

The Penguins With and Without Kris Letang Since '11-12
GPG Power Play GAPG W-L record PPG
With Letang 3.48 23.6 2.60 77-28-7 1.44
Without Letang 2.98 20.2 2.42 42-21-0 1.33
Overall 3.30 22.5 2.54 119-49-7 1.40

NHL.com

On a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Letang is more of a luxury than a necessity, and paying a luxury $7.25 million in a salary-cap world seems like an excess Shero would be wise to shed.

The Penguins have $25.45 million tied up in three players—Crosby, Malkin and Letang. They make up 35.8 percent of the team’s $71.1 million cap figure for 2014-15, the largest percentage for any three players on one team in the league.

If Shero was thinking about trading Letang in June, his team’s performance in the wake of injuries to Letang, Orpik, Martin and Rob Scuderi should have him feeling good about the young, inexpensive defensemen coming through his system.

Simon Despres, 22, Philip Samuelsson, 22, and Brian Dumoulin, 22, all stepped into the lineup for the injured veterans, and the Penguins didn’t miss a beat. Olli Maatta, 19, has been with the Penguins since the start of the season and looks like the real deal.

That doesn’t include Derrick Pouliot, the eighth pick of the 2012 draft who is currently doing very well in the WHL as a point-per-game blueliner with the Portland Winterhawks. He is still a couple years away from being ready for the NHL, but it speaks to the defensive depth the Penguins have in their system.

The one thing those four young defenseman have in common is inexpensive entry-level contracts. Stanley Cup contenders generally have a mix of expensive talent and inexpensive youngsters who are NHL-ready. It’s been a small sample size with Despres, Samuelsson and Dumoulin, but Shero may feel they’ll be ready for bigger roles on dirt-cheap contracts next season.

But how would the Penguins survive without Letang? After all, for all of his defensive deficiencies, he does a lot of things well and is a big part of the team. Would the Penguins still be an elite team without him?

Based on a considerable sample size without Letang over the past two-plus seasons, the Penguins would be just fine.

Letang has missed 63 games over the past two-plus seasons—61 due to injury and two due to suspension. The Penguins have posted a 42-21-0 record, which is a 109-point pace over an 82-game season. Over the past two seasons, when Crosby has been almost entirely healthy, unlike when he missed 60 games in 2011-12, the Penguins are 24-8 in Letang's absence.

The Penguins have scored 3.30 goals per game over the past two-plus seasons, a number that dips to 2.98 in Letang’s absence. When Letang is active, the Penguins are scoring 3.48 goals per game. It’s a huge difference, to be sure, but the 2.98 goals per game would leave the Penguins right around fifth or sixth in the NHL in scoring, more than enough to be a Stanley Cup contender. 

The power play takes a hit with Letang out of the lineup, but it only goes from 22.5 percent to 20.2 percent. The latter number is good enough for fourth in the NHL this season.

The Penguins offense essentially goes from otherworldly to elite with Letang gone. But the one area they improve when he sits is on the defensive side. 

Over the past two-plus seasons, the Penguins are allowing 2.54 goals per game. But in the 63 games in which Letang has been unavailable, they are giving up 2.42 goals per game. When Letang plays, the Penguins allow 2.60 goals per game.

Overall, the Penguins' goal differential goes from plus-0.76 to plus-0.56 with Letang not part of the team. The latter number would be the fifth-best mark in the NHL this season.

But all of those non-Letang numbers come with him possessing a $3.5 million cap hit, a number that will more than double starting next season. Those numbers also come with Letang being replaced by an in-house defenseman and nothing more. They would very likely be better if Letang was traded for assets and one or two of them were ready to contribute right away.

The Penguins would also likely improve if they took that Letang money and spent it on a free-agent forward or two, as scoring depth outside of the top-six has become an issue. There is a steep drop in scoring talent after Crosby, Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. It's something that came back to haunt them against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, along with Letang's shaky play defensively. 

That's the larger point with Letang—the playoffs. As the Penguins advanced in 2013, Letang became more and more of a train wreck in his own zone. The team can shield him from genuinely tough matchups in the regular season, but the top teams all have two and sometimes three dangerous lines, and those lines have had the tendency to expose Letang.

A long-held myth about the playoffs is fewer power plays are awarded compared to the regular season when in fact the numbers are close to even. The long-term problem is the NHL has trended away from calling penalties in the playoffs since 2005-06. That could marginalize Letang's value over the life of his contract, although the NHL could ask referees to be more vigilant if the trend continues. 

If Shero trades Letang, the Penguins could theoretically enter next season with Orpik, Matt Niskanen (both of whom are UFAs making a combined $6 million this season), Martin, Rob Scuderi, Maatta and Despres. There are far worse defense corps in the NHL.

If Shero was considering dealing Letang last summer, he may actually pull the trigger on the right deal this summer now that he possesses more evidence that his team can excel with Letang out of the lineup. If San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is willing to pay a premium for a replacement for Dan Boyle, for example, Shero will have to listen to the offer.

***

Here are some stray thoughts about hockey:

* The hockey world got worked into tizzy last week over Scott Burnside’s piece documenting the selection process for the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team. The behind-the-scenes recounting wasn’t all that flattering for Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators, who isn't exactly a darling in the eyes of general manager David Poile and the brain trust that chose the team.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The criticism in the wake of the story was fired at everyone involved, but really, no one should have been mad at anyone.

Burnside (and Kevin Allen of USA Today) offered an interesting glimpse into what has always been a secretive process. It was enlightening, and the fact that the story didn’t pull any punches is what made it so enthralling. It’s the type of journalism to which everyone should aspire.

Poile and his management group should apologize for nothing. They spoke honestly about all the players involved in front of two journalists, discussing players the way we all knew they would when trying to decide on a roster. Sure, the rationale they used for keeping Ryan off the team was absurd, but that’s their right as talent evaluators.

There’s nothing wrong with doing spin control in the wake of the story coming out, either, but that should be part of the natural process of a story that is written with no filters. It’s better than USA Hockey having editorial control of the story.

Ryan has every right to be upset—no one wants to have their perceived flaws discussed publicly—but he’s been around long enough to know front-office people discuss hockey players like this all the time.

People always cry and whine that they wish players and management were more open and honest. The second they become more open and honest, people whine that they are too harsh. Some of that whining came from so-called hockey journalists, which is truly upsetting.

Hopefully when the dust settles, USA Hockey will realize what a great thing it was to allow Burnside and Allen into their meetings and offer to let it happen again in four years. Good journalism and honesty hurt sometimes.

 

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

* The Buffalo Sabres have been without a general manager since firing Darcy Regier on Nov. 13, but they appear to be finally settling on a replacement. Senators assistant GM Tim Murray is reportedly set to take the job, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie on Twitter late Tuesday. 

The trade deadline is March 5, which means Murray will have no more than 19 games to evaluate the status of pending UFAs Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott. The Sabres are about to embark on an extensive rebuild, and Murray needs to find out if the trio wants to be part of that rebuild and what they could fetch in a trade.

Murray will also have to decide if Ted Nolan will be the coach next season. The Sabres have improved greatly—although they couldn't have been much worse—since he took over for Ron Rolston on Nov. 13, going 8-11-3 after a 4-15-1 start.

Murray will have to hit the ground running when his hire becomes official.

 

Scott Levy/Getty Images

* What does the future hold for the Rangers' Michael Del Zotto? It seems that a trade is inevitable for the beleaguered defenseman, but would the Rangers really be better off without him?

Justin Falk has been underwhelming, and rookies Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath aren’t ready to step in and play regularly just yet.

Del Zotto is making just $2.55 million this season and will be a restricted free agent this summer. The 23-year-old would likely benefit from a fresh start elsewhere, but can the Rangers really afford to deal him if they consider themselves a playoff team?

If the faith isn’t there in Falk, Allen or McIlrath, the Rangers may need to hang onto Del Zotto and make their move after the season.

 

Three Questions

(If you’d like to ask a question for the weekly mailbag, you can reach me via email at dave111177@gmail.com, fire your query at me via Twitter at @DaveLozo or leave a question in the comments section for next week.) 

 

I’m sure the rest is beneficial to some players, but there’s no definitive correlation between teams sending a lot of guys stumbling down the stretch and vice versa.

In 2010, the final four teams standing were San Jose (eight players sent to the Olympics), Chicago (six), Montreal (five) and Philadelphia (four).

The teams that sent the most players to the Olympics in 2010 were the Ducks (nine), Red Wings (eight), Sharks (eight) and Canucks (seven). The Canucks and Red Wings reached the conference semifinals while the Ducks went 9-7-4 down the stretch to miss the playoffs by six points.

A better way to look at it is teams that send a lot of players to the Olympics have a lot of good players, meaning those players are usually on very good teams.

 

I have some extremely bad news. If you watched Hockey Canada’s announcement of its roster Tuesday morning, there’s a better-than-average chance you are dead. The grandstanding introductions before the roster was unveiled lasted approximately 11 hours, and I’m sure a lot of people around the world died in that window.

We here at Bleacher Report will mourn your passing, Holly, and we will dedicate the remainder of this week’s Bag Skate to your memory.

 

Dave,

What exactly is the deal with Pekka Rinne? Is he done? Nashville was brutal enough to watch when he was in there—now they are ... ugh. 

--Curtis

Yes, they are quite…ugh. But Rinne’s deal is a hip infection that stems from offseason surgery. It’s always funny when teams announce a player had “successful” surgery, but it appears that wasn’t the case for Rinne.

The latest news came out two weeks ago, when the Predators announced they were pushing back his timetable to return. A bacterial infection is harder to gauge than a sprained knee, so it’s really up in the air when he’ll back in the lineup. 

The Predators miss him dearly, and their playoff hopes could hinge on him getting back sooner than later.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.

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