Analysis: Penguins set up to handle Letang's absence

Friday, 02.07.2014 / 4:20 PM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com Staff Writer

The hockey world was shocked when Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero delivered the news Friday that defenseman Kris Letang had suffered a stroke last week and would miss a minimum of six weeks.

Fortunately the condition is not life-threatening and the 26-year-old has been cleared to go on vacation with his family during the NHL break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He's expected to resume skating on his own after the Olympic break.

As for the Penguins, they'll be tasked with continuing without one of their best defensemen. But if their season to this point is any indication, they should be able to handle this adversity.

It's been an injury-filled season for Letang, who has 10 goals and 18 points in 34 games. He missed the first nine games of the season with a lower-body injury and sat out 10 games in December with an upper-body injury.

While Letang has been a key contributor for the Penguins during most of his eight NHL seasons, the Penguins have done fine so far without him and enter the weekend with a 17-point lead on the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and a six-point bulge on the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Can they continue that level of play without Letang for at least six weeks, and possibly longer? Well, the Penguins are 18-5-0 in the 23 games Letang has missed this season.

Injuries to Letang, as well as other members of the Penguins' defense corps, have put the organization's defensive depth on display, and the team hasn't missed a beat. The biggest challenge came during a six-game span between Dec. 14 and Dec. 23 when Letang, Brooks Orpik (concussion), Rob Scuderi (ankle) and Paul Martin (leg) all were out of the lineup.

Without their top four defensemen the Penguins shifted veteran Matt Niskanen and 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta into a top pairing and mixed depth players Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland with American Hockey League callups Brian Dumoulin, Simon Despres and Philip Samuelsson to fashion a unit that helped the Penguins go 5-1-0 and allow 15 goals, five of them to the Ottawa Senators in their lone loss in that span.

Outstanding play from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played a major role in that stretch, but a large portion of the credit has to go to the rebuilt defense corps.

Orpik, Scuderi and Martin all have returned to the lineup, allowing the younger players to continue developing at their own rate and in roles more conducive to their experience levels. But the NHL experience they gained was invaluable and certainly must make coach Dan Bylsma breathe a bit easier when he goes searching to fill Letang's minutes.

It's also why Shero doesn't have to move a defenseman to the top of his shopping list if he's looking to add anything ahead of the March 5 NHL Trade Deadline.

With a season-ending knee injury to top-line right wing Pascal Dupuis and right wing Beau Bennett still recovering from a hand injury, Shero can allocate what assets he has toward obtaining someone to play on one of the top two lines. Or he can try to find a defensive-minded forward who can play with Brandon Sutter on the third line and help kill penalties.

The Penguins also have a greater need in net than on defense. Rookie Jeff Zatkoff has done well in 12 games since replacing Tomas Vokoun as Fleury's backup, but the 26-year-old had no NHL experience prior to this season. And with Fleury's past postseason struggles Shero could look to bring in a more experienced backup to serve as a security blanket in case Fleury has more playoff problems.

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