Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang Becoming a Top-Notch Defenseman
Gone are the questions of when Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang will step up his game and play to his full potential, because the start of the 2010-2011 NHL season has this young Penguin playing some top-notch hockey.
For a player who was touted as a future Paul Coffey after being drafted 62nd overall in the 2005 NHL Draft, Letang's NHL career started slowly and unstable.
He was notorious for asking too many questions about his game in the locker room. But, despite his clear lack of confidence in his play, Letang was showing the qualities of a future star.
23-year-old Letang plays a solid defensive game by integrating good instincts with swift puck moments that can send it from the defensive to offensive zone in a matter of seconds. Recently, an element of physicality has become present here as well.
On the flip-side, Letang also demonstrates a natural offensive prowess that sees him following the puck on a counter-attack and becoming a legitimate threat to the opposition.
This is all tied together with Letang's strongest skill as a defenseman: His wonderful ability to skate. Letang is a smooth as they come on his skates, which contributes greatly to his speed and ability to move the puck north-south with ease and fluidity.
However, these moments of greatness seen in Letang's game weren't always present in his earlier seasons in the NHL. Expectations remained high despite his previous struggles, but it's important to keep in mind that defensemen in the NHL require a longer time to develop both physically AND emotionally.
How would you grade Letang's performance in the NHL so far?
Each offseason, Letang would train and strengthen his body to prepare for the upcoming season. However, nothing seemed to change Letang emotionally more than the death of his best friend and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luc Bourdon.
His death during the 2008 Stanley Cup Final became Letang's inspiration during the following season that saw him not only play an extraordinary tournament, but also win hockey's greatest trophy.
An on-ice interview with Letang following the Pens' Stanley Cup win was all the proof necessary that he won that cup for Bourdon.
Letang struggled the following season, netting only a total of three goals and 27 points. His biggest problems included an inability to hit the net and some costly defensive gaffes. Certainly not a good way to close off a contract year, and the speculation began: Should GM Ray Shero trade Letang for greater talent?
The answer was ultimately "no" and Letang signed a five-year contract worth $3.5 million a season. He truly had something to prove coming into the 2010-2011 season, especially when defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton and Jay McKee opted to leave the Penguins. This was Shero's way of saying that it was time for him and fellow defenseman Alex Goligoski to step up their game and take charge of the defense.
The season is only a month old, but Letang has already demonstrated how much he has improved his skills on both ends of the ice. He is playing with a very fresh identity that has reawakened Pens and hockey fans of the talent he possesses.
Skating on a line with Paul Martin, another smooth puck-mover with good hands, he and Letang are like two peas in a pod when they play. I feel that has something to do with Letang taking some pointers from Martin. Since the start of the season, Letang has played with an ease and confidence that he did not demonstrate in the past, and it has shown on and off the scoreboard.
Letang is second among defensemen with three goals and 11 points. Last season, it took Letang a full year to score that many goals. In fact, if Letang can keep it up, he will finish the season with some personal record numbers.
Looking beyond the numbers, Letang has added a feistier, more physical element to his game and is now more than willing to drop the mits and hold his own for the most part. He holds the second highest penalty minutes on the team, behind rugged fighter and defenseman Deryk Engelland. After Engelland, only Letang and winger Mike Rupp have scrapped more than once and this doesn't include the times he fought in the preseason.
This willingness to fight tells me that Letang has decided to take on a larger leadership role on the team, something that should come naturally to him since he captained the 2007 World Junior Canadian team to a gold medal. A look back at his hockey career and the obstacles he has overcome cushions the idea that he is a fighter at heart.
Letang's fight for more responsibility on the team is something that should be rewarded, specifically with more time on the power play. Understandably, Alex Goligoski eats up a lot of time on the power play, but Letang has been proving that he's no longer afraid to shoot the puck and can find the twine with much more ease than in the past.
Most notably, Letang's wrist shot has become no laughing matter for the opposition.
Letang is rapidly budding in his new role on the Pens and it has been impressive to watch potential blossom into natural talent the way it has for Letang in the course of this season. He is currently fighting a hand injury, but if Letang can remain healthy this season, there is no doubt that he can put up impressive numbers on the scoreboard as well as make huge leaps in his mental development.
By no means has Letang reached the level of "top-notch" defenseman at this time because he is still growing into his role on the team, but at the pace he is going it's hard to imagine that it isn't possible in the near future.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins and a college writing intern for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com with any comments.
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