Kris Letang had a remarkably tough 2013-14 season. Instead of pushing for an Olympic roster spot with Canada and challenging for the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 27-year-old spent a majority of the campaign dealing with serious injuries and ailments.
He was forced to miss almost the entire opening month of the season, appearing in his first contest on October 25 against the New York Islanders. By that point the Penguins were already nine games into the campaign, and most of the team's players were already locked into their regular routines.
The NHL season is a long one, but Letang never really got the chance to settle in, let alone learn coach Dan Bylsma's new system—one in which he wasn't the best fit, as noted by Ian Altenbaugh of Hockeysfuture.com:
While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were in Sochi, Russia, competing for gold medals, Letang suffered a stroke and subsequently missed 10 more weeks of action. In this instance the health of the player is the most important thing, but it was just another knock against what amounts to a wasted campaign.
To top it all off, Letang suffered a broken foot in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the New York Rangers...and then a broken hand in Game 7, as noted by TVA Sports' Renaud Lavoie:
Calling 2013-14 a season to forget for Letang would be an understatement. He's since recovered from his injuries, however, and is back on track for the 2014-15 campaign.
Letang appears to be healthy and focused on the task at hand—getting the Penguins back into the mix for the Stanley Cup—and that means that the former Norris Trophy finalist from 2012-13 should once again be able to vie for the title of best defenseman in the NHL.
Say what you want about how the Professional Hockey Writers' Association usually votes on the Norris, but it clearly tends to favor offensive prowess over defensive efficiency. A player can't be terrible in his own zone, but if a defenseman is piling on 50 or more points, odds are good that he's spending more time in the offensive zone anyway.
Given the PHWA's tendency to value offensive contributions, a healthy Letang should be considered a front-runner for the Norris.
If he stays healthy.
That's the operative phrase for a lot of players around the NHL, but it holds especially true in Letang's case. After all, there aren't many players who had to deal with stroke-like issues last year, let alone various broken bones and setbacks. He's only appeared in 72 of Pittsburgh's last 130 regular-season games, though, and that makes him an injury risk.
Let's say he does manage to duck the injury bug for the first time since the 2010-11 season, though. Let's say he suits up for 70 or 75 contests; that would be a large enough body of work to warrant Norris consideration given Letang's points-per-game average over the last three seasons (0.91).
Even if he doesn't quite reach that level of production, 0.75 points per game would be enough to land him plenty of votes.
This is especially true, since the opposition won't be able to key on all of Pittsburgh's offensive-minded defensemen at once. It's been a while since Christian Ehrhoff has been in the spotlight, but it won't take long for fans and pundits to remember why the Buffalo Sabres were willing to shell out 10 years and $40 million for the Moers, Germany, native.
Letang doesn't need much extra space to create offense, and a deeper Penguins team should give him even more opportunities to post assists. If nothing else, Pittsburgh's power play should still be dynamite.
The biggest boon for Letang's upcoming season might be incoming head coach Mike Johnston's uptempo system that just so happens to place an emphasis on everything the defender does well. Johnston wants the Penguins to be a pass-first team out of their own zone. No dumping. No going up and off the walls. It'll be about hanging on to the puck and making quick, smart plays.
On offense, the Penguins will work to compress the defense around its own net before moving the puck back to the blue line for open looks.
All of this bodes well for Letang, who is one of the NHL's best outlet passers and skaters. It wouldn't be surprising to see Johnston run the offense through Letang outright, even with Crosby or Malkin out on the ice.
It's easy to overlook Letang as a potential Norris Trophy winner for the 2014-15 season because it feels like it's been a long time since we've seen him at his absolute best. Barring any more unfortunate setbacks—the guy should catch a break eventually, right?—Letang will undoubtedly be in the mix for the title of NHL's top defender in 2014-15.