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Kris Letang injury 'hard' for Penguins

With top defenseman missing playoffs, Pittsburgh's path to repeat as Cup champions much more difficult

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy last season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins would not have won the Stanley Cup without Kris Letang playing nearly 29 dominant minutes per game.

Now they have to try to repeat without their best defenseman, who was arguably their most important player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

Letang will have surgery for a herniated disk in his neck and miss the playoffs. He will need 4-6 months to recover, which could take him into the start of training camp and/or next season. 

Letang, who hasn't played since Feb. 21, was hopeful rest and rehabilitation would have solved his dilemma enough to allow him to play in the playoffs, but an MRI last week revealed the herniated disk.

"Rehab was going well," Letang said. "Last week it blew up on me. It's hard."

 

[RELATED: Kris Letang out for Stanley Cup Playoffs]

 

So the Penguins have to go on without Letang. They've done that fairly well for the past 20 games, going 12-5-3 since he left the lineup, including 3-2-2 against teams that have either clinched or on the verge of clinching a berth into the playoffs.

But what the Penguins have done without Letang for the past nearly seven weeks isn't the point. It's what they have to do without him starting next week.

Has a team ever lost its best defenseman to a season-ending injury before the playoffs and still won the Stanley Cup? Not in recent memory, and by recent memory we're going back to before the 1970s Montreal Canadiens, which isn't so recent.

You could argue the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 without a true No. 1 defenseman. Bret Hedican led their defensemen in ice time per game at 22:40 and Frantisek Kaberle led the defense in points with 13 in 25 games.

So by that example, it is possible for the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup without Letang, because he's really their only true No. 1 defenseman. 

But the Hurricanes went through the whole 2005-06 season that way. They were used to it. They had their defensemen slotted the way they wanted them long before the playoffs began.

Video: NHL Tonight on Kris Letang's season-ending injury

Pittsburgh hasn't had that luxury. In addition to Letang, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley have been out of the lineup, too.

Maatta hasn't played since Feb. 16 because of a hand injury. Daley hasn't played since Feb. 21 because of a knee injury. Both could return to the lineup before the Penguins start the playoffs next week, likely against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Justin Schultz is the Penguins new default No. 1. He has had a tremendous season, a breakout season in fact, but he has never played more than 19 minutes in a playoff game.

Can Schultz play an effective 25 minutes in a playoff game? Can Daley or Maatta do it coming back from injury? Do the Penguins have enough time to jam a top-six together and get them all on the same page before the playoffs start? 

All fair questions. There are no answers yet.

The rest of the Penguins defense is solid with Brian Dumoulin, Ian Cole, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit and Chad Ruhwedel. When you put it all together it's quite a deep, serviceable blue line.

That doesn't solve the Penguins' big problem.

"He's an elite player and a great teammate," Sullivan said of Letang. "He's a tough guy to replace."

In Pittsburgh, Letang is impossible to replace, which is why the Penguins will feel the impact of losing him. Nobody they have now can replicate what he can do for them with his skating, puck movement and ability to wreak havoc in so many ways.

The Penguins didn't have Letang for the playoffs in 2015 and they lost in five games to the New York Rangers in the first round. 

They won without him in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals last season, but it took until overtime and Daley played more than 28 minutes in the 3-2 win. Daley was injured six games later and didn't play again in the postseason.

Imagine the Penguins sustaining another long-term injury in the playoffs and not having the ability to ride Letang even more.

Does that mean the Penguins can't win the Stanley Cup again? Don't be foolish. Counting out a team that features unflappable goaltender Matt Murray and Crosby, with his ability to make whoever is on the ice with him better, would be asinine. 

However, the Penguins' road got much tougher Wednesday with the news Letang won't join them on the journey.

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