It didn't bother Kris Letang that he wasn't among the 100 players on the ballot for the 2011 All-Star Game presented by Discover. It does seem to have bothered fans, who have written Letang's name on their ballots 210,807 times, most among all defensemen and second among all players.
"It means a lot," Letang told the team's website in regards to the recognition. "I know we have the greatest fans in hockey in Pittsburgh. Just to have them on your side and pushing on your back, it's big. You feel very comfortable."
He's certainly looked comfortable on the ice. With Sergei Gonchar leaving this past summer, Letang has assumed his role as the Penguins' top defenseman. He's fifth in the League with 21 assists and second among all defensemen with 26 points. He also has 5 goals and a plus-15 rating. And he's done it while averaging 22:56 per game, second on the team and the most in his career.
"The biggest thing you notice is just how talented he is, how much skill he has, how good of a player he is," teammate and fellow defenseman Paul Martin told the Penguins' website. "And still you see the potential -- he can even be better. He's having a good year and is still recognizing certain situations when he can take chances and when he can't. He's been fun to watch, and he's only going to get better."
Fans certainly believe he's pretty good already. He received 94,945 votes in just a week to rocket to No. 1 among blueliners, and he's also the top player among fans texting their vote -- 44,952, nearly double second place.
Chris Pronger is second, but he's more than 16,000 votes behind Letang. Third is Duncan Keith, followed by the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom. That threesome has combined for eight Norris trophies, 16 All-Star appearances and four Olympic gold medals.
There's a lot more time to go, so voting could change -- just ask Letang -- but he's certainly putting on a show right now for voters. During the Penguins' current 10-game win streak, he has 2 goals, 9 points and a plus-6 rating.
"I think when he plays his best his mindset going into games is to defend well," Brooks Orpik, Letang's defense partner, told the team's website. "I think if he concentrates on playing defense, his offensive game just kind of comes to him naturally. … He's definitely made a lot of strides this year with that. He'd probably tell you he still has a long way to go."
Like Letang, the Thrashers' Dustin Byfuglien also knows he has a long way to go to get better at his position. But for his first season as a full-time defenseman, he's certainly doing pretty well -- his 10 goals and 29 points lead all blueliners.
"I don't think there's anyone else in the league with his size, skating ability, and skill," said teammate Andrew Ladd. "When he's going top speed there's no one that can stop him. He's a pretty special player and we're lucky to have him."
Fans have taken notice, but not to the extent they've pumped Letang. Byfuglien is 11th in the voting, with 95,632. It's the same place he was last week, but whether Byfuglien finishes in the top two or not -- he trails Pronger by nearly 99,000 votes -- it would be very surprising if he's left out of the final pool of players selected by NHL Hockey Operations for the 2011 NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, to be held Friday, Jan. 28.
"(Playing in the All-Star Game) would mean so much," Byfuglien told the Thrashers' website. "It's an honor to be on the ballot, but there's still a long way until they make that decision. So we just have to stay here and try to get our team on the winning way."
Among the players Byfuglien will have to jump over are Philadelphia veteran Kimmo Timonen, who ranks fifth. Following him is Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban. Despite being a healthy scratch the last two games, Subban moved up from eighth to sixth in the voting.
Brent Seabrook, Keith's partner in Chicago, maintains the seventh spot he held last week. The Kings' Drew Doughty, a Norris Trophy finalist last year, slipped to eighth, followed by another Norris finalist, the Capitals' Mike Green. The Red Wings' Brian Rafalski, sits 10th.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org