With the Penguins on their league-mandated bye week, we have some time to reflect over the Penguins first 44 games. They went into the break on a high note, winning back to back games against the Islanders and Bruins respectively. The 42 games before that were hard to swallow.
A big part of the Penguins’ issues have been the performance of their stars. The brightest spot for Pittsburgh has by far been Phil Kessel, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been inconsistent. Even Crosby recently admitted that he doesn’t deserve a spot in the all star game.
The biggest disappointment of this season has been the performance of Kris Letang. Either way you cut it, Letang’s season has been one of his worst to date. His advanced stats are down, his shot percentage is at a career-low, and his plus-minus (for what it’s worth) is way down at -13.
The eye test has probably been the most damning evidence for Letang. He just doesn’t look like the same player. There are flashes of the player that Letang has become over his career, but then he’s back to bad giveaways and other lapses.
One thing that’s also noticeable is how Letang has seemed to be avoiding contact more often than usual. It’s completely understandable. He’s dealt with more health issues than someone should ever have to deal with in a hockey career. His latest neck surgery that kept him out for months could be the catalyst for a more timid playing style, but part of what made Letang great was his aggressive play.
Now, in no way are the Penguins at risk for missing the playoffs based on Letang’s play alone. As a matter of fact, the Penguins will need him if they are to make another run at the Cup. Yes, they won without him in the playoffs last season, but the Penguins aren’t as deep up front this season and will need as much support from the back end as possible. Letang’s ability to break out of the zone is valuable by itself.
Letang may be trying to find a slightly different way to play to help lengthen his career, but if he is, he may never be the same player again. He’s 30 years old and is approaching the end of his prime. He can definitely still be one of the better defensemen in the league, but his best days may be behind him.
There are still 38 games left this season, and Letang’s performance seems to be trending upward lately, so he may be turning a corner. Very few would be happier than myself if he finds his form again. Overall, his health is key. Having a more timid Letang in the lineup is better than no Letang at all.
Letang is crucial to the Penguins’ success and is a part of the core group that the team is built around. Everyone should be rooting for his success. If the Penguins make a run for a “three-peat,” he will be a big reason why.