After the Pittsburgh Penguins parted ways with two of their most proficient defensive defensemen in Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, it seems that the 2009-10 version of the Pens' blue line will have more of an eye toward the offensive side of playing defense.
Sergei Gonchar, who is without a doubt one of the top five offensive defenseman in the National Hockey League, has manned the point on the Penguins' power play since the 2005-06 season.
While the 35-year-old veteran still provides the best vision and the heaviest slap shot among the Pens' defensive corps, there's a relatively new face on the Pens' blue line that may not give Sarge a run for his money as a No. 1 defenseman, but will surely provide a more than adequate supplement to Gonchar's blue line prowess.
Twenty-two-year old Kristopher Letang will be entering his second full season as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In 2006-07, Letang suited up for just seven games with the big club (registering two goals) while he spent the majority of the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.
Two seasons ago, Letang appeared in 63 games, racking up 17 points on six goals and 11 assists for the Pens.
During the Penguins' Stanley Cup Championship 2009 season, Letang became a full-time starter in the NHL for the first time at the age of 21.
He responded to the challenge by posting 33 points, scoring 10 goals, four on the power play, racking up 111 hits, and elevating his game at both ends of the ice.
However impressive his regular season numbers were, Letang once again silenced his critics in the Stanley Cup playoffs by leading all Penguins' defensemen with 54 shots on goal en route to posting four goals and nine assists for 13 points during the postseason.
There is no doubt that Letang possesses both the tangible and intangible aspects of an All-Star caliber defenseman.
He is a better puck handler than Gonchar, plays a more physical style than Lidstrom, and is leaps and bounds better in his own zone than Mike Green could ever hope to be.
So what's holding him back?
Well, the most obvious answer seems to be: absolutely nothing.
Letang has certainly benefited from the opportunity to play and learn from one of the game's best offensive defenseman of the last decade in Sergei Gonchar.
He has undoubtedly gained a wealth of knowledge in the "heavy hitting" department from teammate Brooks Orpik.
Going to work and watching Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby handle the puck every day would rub off a little on any normal human being, but for someone who already possesses NHL-caliber talent, the benefits are even greater.
While Letang is still young, and doesn't have the luxury of being a "big name" player, he certainly has the raw talent and the evident ability to learn quickly that should enable him to blossom into one of the best young two-way defensemen in the league.
While Letang may or may not be able to add the words "All Star" to his resume, he has already added the title "Stanley Cup Champion," something that most 22-year-old hockey players can only dream of accomplishing.
Tanger showed improvement in every major statistical category last season, but it was the things that don't show up on the stat sheet that were perhaps more impressive.
His poise with the puck and aggressiveness in all three zones have improved vastly since he first suited up for the Pens as a 20-year-old just three seasons ago.
Perhaps the one thing that Tanger seems a bit hesitant to improve upon is his willingness to shoot the puck.
The fact that he led all Penguins' defensemen in shots on goal during the 2009 playoffs is a promising sign that this will change.
There are many times that Letang has an open look at the net, particularly on the power play, but he opts to defer to either Gonchar, Crosby, or Malkin.
It's not that he doesn't have the ability to put those pucks in the back of the net, but rather, it seems he is just a bit too hesitant.
Once that changes, and it will, Letang should begin to put up very impressive numbers.
So, as the Penguins prepare to defend their Stanley Cup Championship, they will undoubtedly look to Kris Letang to play a bigger role in both the offensive and defensive successes of their team.
And judging by what we've seen from him so far...Tanger will be more than ready to meet the challenge.
Let's Go Pens.
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