With the drafting of Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004), and Sidney Crosby (2005), the Pens had their backbone rebuilt. But during that time, they also drafted character players, guys who could offer support and skill to a rebuilding roster. One of those guys was a young French Canadian defenseman named Kris Letang.
Over the past three seasons, Penguins fans have been able to watch offensive defenseman Letang develop into a top four defender. Letang, a Montreal native, was drafted by the Pens in the third round of the 2005 Draft, 82nd overall.
As expected, Crosby immediately jumped into the league, notching 102 points his rookie year. Letang, however, continued working on his game in the QMJHL with Val-d'Or. He put up 68 points in 60 games and was one of the highest scoring defenders in the league that year, earning him First Team Honors. Letang also played in the World Juniors U-18 Tournament, winning a silver medal.
At the start of the 2006-2007 NHL Season, the Penguins were looking to shake things up. They were counting on their younger players, such as Letang, Malkin, and Jordan Staal for big production. Malkin was injured in the preseason and Staal had an impressive campaign. Letang debuted with the team and played in seven games, notching two goals, before being sent back down to the QMJHL.
Before his reassignment, their was some controversy as to who the Penguins would be sending down. Both Letang and Staal were rookies, who would have to be contracted officially if they continued to play. Letang was showing some signs of promise at defense, which was sorely needed by the Penguins.
The Pens, prior to 2006-2007, were consistently one of the worst teams in the league when it came to points from the defense.
The decision was made to send Letang down and keep Staal, who eventually put up 42 points and was a Calder Trophy finalist.
But Penguins fans like myself had something to look forward to. And at the start of the 2007-2008 season, Letang was again called up. He would be staying in Pittsburgh this time.
Playing in 63 games for the Penguins that season, "Tanger" notched 17 points (6+11, 17), including three game winners. Letang also proved to be a skilled Shoot Out specialist. He continued to improve throughout the season, but showed signs of fatigue during the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit, when he eventually was benched and replaced by the dinosaur, Darryl Sydor. Nonetheless, in his first "rookie" season, Letang proved his worth.
The 2008-2009 season of the Penguins is well documented. Through injuries, disappointing performances, and coaching changes, Letang was a consistent bright spot. He continued to improve offensively, putting up 33 points (10+23, 33) in the regular season and another 13 points, (4+9,13) in the postseason, including the winner in an amazing Game 3 against the arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers.
Letang had solidified himself in the hearts of Penguins fans as one of the future franchise players. At the ripe, old age of 22, he has a Stanley Cup under his belt.
If one simply goes to a Pens game or even lives in Pittsburgh, they are bound to see many, many Letang jerseys. This is a testament to his popularity among the people. Penguins fans love his gritty, feisty personality, but also his sense of team and undeniable ability. He was even a "guest" on the infamous "Cooking with Geno" Youtube video. If you watch closely, I think he spits out Malkin's perogie.
But, as with all good things, they must come to an end. Letang has proven himself over the past two seasons as a top four defenseman, which is a double-edged sword. After the 2009-2010 season, his contract in Pittsburgh is up. While he is a RFA, rather than a UFA, this puts the Pens in a pickle.
The contracts of Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee, and Brent Johnson are also up. The Penguins already have $41 million committed to salaries for the 2010 season. So someone will have to be a victim of the oh-mighty-dollar.
The issue of re-signing forwards will be left for another day. So the big issue here is the contracts of Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. Both have proven their worth. Gonchar, an assistant captain, has logged four productive years with the team.
Rumor has it that he is seeking a two-year deal worth about $5 million a year. Also, it has been said that Letang wants a deal in the neighborhood of three years, $2.5 million a year. The Penguins will have a hard time paying Gonch and Tanger, so someone will have to be shown the door.
Personally, as a Pens fan, this is a terrible choice. Like choosing between my children, if I had any. I love both of their styles of play. Letang is gritty, young and reliable, but Gonchar is the master of the powerplay and is one of the best defenders in the entire league. So GM Ray Shero has some hard calls to make in the next nine months. I do not envy his position.
So is Kris Letang the heir apparent to the crown of the Penguins defense? I'm not sure. He looks like he has the potential to be a Paul Coffey-like defender. But are the Pens willing to dispatch the Old King in Gonchar to throne a new one?