That’s obviously a hot topic, but in the obsession with “Crosby Watch,” fans and media tend to overlook the players who have stepped up and made the Penguins so successful in Crosby’s extended absence.
One of the Penguins players that has contributed to keeping the Penguins in first place in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference is defenseman Kris Letang.
Although Letang’s first few seasons were mired with inconsistency and making costly mistakes on the ice, the Penguins organization continued to believe in him. In March of 2010, he was signed to a four-year contract extension through the 2013-14 season, and he even improved on his 2009 playoff goal total by scoring five goals in 13 postseason games (he had four goals in 2009).
Letang had a breakout season in 2010-11 and proved the Penguins made the right decision in giving him an extension.
The absence of Crosby, combined with the departure of Sergei Gonchar, put Letang in the spotlight. He responded well, finishing the 2010-11 campaign with a career-high 50 points and plus-15 rating, as well as four power-play goals and two game-winning goals. He finished second on the team in scoring and led all Penguins defensemen in points.
In addition, he was third with 109 blocked shots and fifth with 167 hits. He also led the team with 24:02 of ice time and tied for third with 4:28 of ice time on the power play.
As a reward for his performance, Letang was named a starter for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. He even had a good playoff run despite the fact that the Pens dropped a 3-1 series lead to lose to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Letang had four assists in seven playoff games.
This year, he has picked up right where he left off. He is currently sixth in the NHL with 12 assists and has 13 points in the Penguins’ first 13 games. He is also second on the Penguins and first among Pittsburgh defensemen in scoring. He ranks fourth among all NHL defensemen in points as well.
He has continued to play big minutes for the Pens, as he is first with 27:10 of ice time and played over half of the Pens’ recent matchup against the San Jose Sharks, logging over 33 minutes of ice time. He is also first with 4:53 of ice time on the power play.
Letang is also fulfilling his defensive responsibilities, as he is second with 23 blocked shots, and adds a physical edge with 21 hits (fifth on the Penguins).
It’s obvious that if Letang can keep up his play, there will be no leaving his name out of Norris Trophy discussion.
Letang is only 24 years old, and the injury problems the Penguins have dealt with forced him to mature and step into a top role last year with little time for adjustment. He has taken on his responsibilities with ease, and although he still makes mistakes in his game, he has shown he is a leader of the Penguins defense. It is partially thanks to him that the Pens are fourth in the NHL with 2.13 goals against per game.
Many of the Penguins offensive superstars have missed time at some point or another, but Letang has kept up that part of his game. He finished last year ahead of veteran defensemen such as Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, who have also shown in the past that they can put up points, in scoring.
However, the fact that he is so high on the Penguins top scorers list shows that he can not only find the back of the net, but serve a big role as a playmaker.
He is already on the path to another spot in the NHL All-Star Game, and he is emerging as one of the league’s elite defensemen to little fanfare.
If he is this good before he is even 25 years old, can you imagine what he’ll be like in the next five years? He can do it all: score in the regular season and postseason, deliver hits and drop the gloves, produce on special teams and, most importantly, win the Stanley Cup. Although he has already proven so much, it feels like there are more exciting moments to come.
While Nicklas Lidstrom still reigns supreme as the league’s best defenseman in my eyes, I feel safe in saying that Letang can at least be in the discussion for the best defenseman on the Penguins.
And I also feel comfortable saying that he should at least be nominated for the Norris Trophy, even if he doesn’t take it home.