The number of defensemen in the NHL that can rival Kris Letang's offensive prowess are few in number. You have Erik Karlsson. P.K. Subban is on that same elite level, regardless of what Michel Therrien thinks or says. Alex Pietrangelo, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber are monsters with the puck as well.
That's not an all-inclusive list—note the disturbing lack of Keith Yandle—but it expresses one idea quite clearly: Letang is one of the league's premier players when it comes to producing points from the blue line and is in unique company when it comes to his skill set.
Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, Letang had posted 130 points in his last 168 contests. That's a ridiculous output for a guy that is supposed to be focusing on defense given his position. Few players on the Pittsburgh Penguins work harder, and Letang is one of the most impressive athletes in the league today.
And there's an increasing chorus of mainstream pundits calling for Pittsburgh to trade him away.
Within the last month, Dejan Kovacevic of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sean Conboy (and a "mega roundtable" of notable writers) of Pittsburgh Magazine and Bleacher Report's own Dave Lozo have explored the possibility of Ray Shero shipping the smooth-skating defender out of town.
There was plenty of trade chatter surrounding Letang throughout the summer last year, but that was before he signed an eight-year, $58 million extension as per CapGeek.com. That extension won't kick in until next season, and it will see the 26-year-old's cap hit jump from $3.5 million to $7.25 million.
Only Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will have higher cap hits. In his column, Lozo breaks down Pittsburgh's cap situation for next season like this:
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 Letang had been mostly healthy over the last three seasons, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma wouldn't know what the Penguins looked like without him in the lineup. Maybe then they'd be less likely to trade him. He has missed 63 of Pittsburgh's last 183 games though, and the team hasn't struggled one bit in his absence.
Is the power play quite as lethal without him? No. Would Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin have the puck on their sticks quite as quickly while in transition? Of course not. That doesn't mean Letang is a necessary part of the equation though.
That's because the Penguins are flush with young defensive talent. They've focused on the blue line at the draft over the last few years, and it showed earlier in the season when they continued to dominate the Eastern Conference despite missing various combinations of their top-six defensemen for long stretches of time.
The emergence of Olli Maatta along with the presence of blue-chip youngsters like Simon Despres and Brian Dumoulin simply makes Letang an expendable commodity.
This is a conversation that would be worth having even if he'd managed to stay out on the ice more often than not over the last few years. Letang is an outstanding player that is in the midst of a rough season. That happens sometimes.
Pittsburgh implemented a totally new defensive scheme during a training camp that Letang was forced to miss due to injury, which put him behind the eight ball before the season even started. He banged up his right knee, and that's a big strike against a player who counts on his skating to be a difference-maker and as a pinching defenseman.
So don't look at him as a guy that only had one or two good seasons that are untouchable. Letang will be a 50-point defender again—whether it's with Pittsburgh or someone else. Those types of blueliners don't become available very often, and when they do their price is high.
Defenders that can score require a big commitment on both term and money, and Letang is no different. Odds are he could have become the highest-paid defenseman in the league had he hit free agency this summer. The Philadelphia Flyers would have made an $8 million-a-year pitch immediately.
Elite talent comes at a price, but Pittsburgh is in the luxurious spot of not having to pay it right now.
That's a positive for the team given that they have 13 players heading for some form of free agency at the end of this year. The main question surrounding a possible Letang deal is obviously what the Penguins could get in return for him.
No matter who or what comes back to Pittsburgh in the event of a trade, the biggest asset will be cap relief. With Letang off the books, it seems very likely that Shero would have the space to retain Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen—both of whom are on expiring deals—with dollars to spare.
Letang's value isn't going to increase as a trade chip in the future. His peak value is right now. He's still viewed as a game-breaking puck rusher that can change the outcome of a game with a few slick assists. Few can match his prowess when it comes to moving the puck up the ice, and once his confidence in his right knee returns, Letang will once again be one of the better skaters in the NHL.
If Shero were to boldly move his presumed No. 1 defenseman, it would be to win the Stanley Cup this season. The proposed Letang trade has been heavily compared to the Mark Recchi deal that lead to a banner in the 1992 season, and with good reason.
When the Penguins decided to trade Recchi—a promising young forward at the time—it was for pieces that Pittsburgh needed. Right now the team needs scoring depth and a top-line winger. That's certainly something that trading Letang could help with. Shero has been adamant that he wants to avoid the rental route, but what if there are prospects and/or picks involved as well?
Moving Letang or speculating that he could be moved doesn't make him less of a hockey player. It almost makes too much sense for Shero not to consider it, however. Letang's cap hit this season is only $3.5 million, so a team with just a bit of space could afford to take him on while sending some money to Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are in a position to deal from a source of true strength. In dealing Letang they could potentially:
- Free up cap space
- Re-sign important impending free agents
- Acquire a rental top-line wing/scoring depth
- Add picks and prospects after dealing similar assets away last year
- Promote cheaper, younger options without seeing a steep drop-off in team performance
Some things would need to align properly for Pittsburgh to get everything that they'd require in a package for their premier defenseman, but looking at the long-term outlook of the team, is it really that unfathomable that Letang could finish the year in a different sweater?
Not at all.
There's simply too much to gain for Shero if he were to move Letang. Pittsburgh has bombed out of the playoffs in four straight years, but the odds of running the table in the East have never been higher. Crosby and Malkin will never be better than they are now. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't looked this strong since 2009.
The time for courageous wheeling and dealing is now for the Penguins, and Letang is a luxury that they simply don't need to take a run at the Stanley Cup.
Want to talk potential Letang trade scenarios? Hit me up on Twitter. Follow @FranklinSteele