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Letang's strong play has earned Norris consideration

by Dan Rosen
Kris Letang blames the media for the buzz surrounding his Norris Trophy candidacy.

"I try to not think about it, but you guys are always reminding me about where I stand," a smiling Letang told earlier this week. "It's your fault."

We're not going to apologize.

It's not our fault the Penguins' top defenseman has 41 points and a plus-21 rating. It's not our fault he has 18 points on the power play. It's not our fault that he's playing nearly 24 minutes a game, including more than two minutes on the League's best penalty-killing unit.

His overall consistency, his physicality against some of the League's best and most physical forwards, his popularity in Pittsburgh -- not our fault.

But, we will take the credit for Letang's curiosity to see how his stats stack up against some of his competitors for the trophy, such as Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien, Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Phoenix's Keith Yandle, Boston's Zdeno Chara, and even long shots like Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky and Colorado's John-Michael Liles.

"Yeah, I look at the numbers," Letang admitted. "Obviously Buff is up there with a lot of goals, and Lidstrom, he's been the best defenseman every year and he's up there. Yandle, I know him from (junior hockey in the QMJHL) because I played against him, so I knew he was capable of doing a lot of good things. I definitely look at numbers and see where I rank."

It took some serious prying to get Letang to say all that. It's almost as if he wants everyone to be hush-hush about his season because maybe he'll be able to sneak up on a few more teams, a few more unsuspecting players and coaches.

Not a chance. Letang played in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover because he picked up 477,960 fan votes as a write-in candidate, the most among defensemen. Had he not received the fan support, he surely would have been one of the 36 selections made by the NHL's Hockey Operations Department.

He's not sneaking up on anybody anymore, and that's his own fault.

"You saw last year and in the years before glimpses of it or stretches of it where he always played the same way, and now I've grown to expect it every game," Letang's defense partner, Brooks Orpik, told "That's about maturing as a player and a person away from the rink. He's done a better job with that."

Letang didn't arrive at this point in his career by happenstance, nor did the Penguins inadvertently elevate his status this summer. They chose not to re-sign veteran Sergei Gonchar because they knew Letang was waiting for the opportunity to play increased minutes and assume a bigger role on the power play.

When Gonchar signed with Ottawa, Letang's position was sealed. Now he had to elevate his game, run with the opportunity.

Mission accomplished.

"Their impact is pretty close to the same capacity, they just do it in different ways," Orpik said in comparing Letang and Gonchar.

As Penguins coach Dan Bylsma pointed out, Letang's shot, specifically on the power play, has improved to the point where it's effective every time.

Not surprisingly, Letang mentioned his shot as one of the "specific things" he worked on in the offseason.

"Last year he'd settle the puck, blast away, miss the net, get shots blocked," Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden said in a recent Sports Illustrated article that called Letang the NHL's most improved player. "Now he moves his feet to find a lane before the puck arrives and one-times it more accurately."

Bylsma also mentioned Letang's defensive-zone play has improved thanks to his skating ability. He's playing top-two minutes against the opposition's best players, but is forcing them to skate backward most of the time because of his ability to defend and quickly transition to the attack.

"He's now putting together in large quantities what we saw in bits and pieces two years ago and last year," Bylsma said.

Now, however, he's added an element of tenacity to his game that feeds into his defense and his attack.

"He hasn't gotten stronger, but he's playing with an edge a lot more and it started right in training camp, when he had a couple of games where guys were almost calling him out for the physical play," Bylsma said. "He's been able to do that against good players, against Washington and (Alex) Ovechkin, that type of player, and I think it adds to his game. It adds to his ability to get loose pucks and get out of the defensive zone."

Letang said he's just more comfortable now. Maybe some of that has to do with his expanded role without Gonchar, but mostly it's just continuity from working with the same coaches and most of the same teammates for the past couple of seasons.

"The experience I got in those first three years, it just covers everything," said Letang, who played parts of two seasons with the Penguins before playing his first full NHL season in 2008-09.

"Once you go through the League a couple of times and learn who you are playing against, that helps," said Orpik.

A lot of young defensemen can say the same thing, but very few turn into Norris Trophy candidates like Letang.

He's earned his elite status. How is that our fault?

"Obviously if people think I should have that (Norris Trophy), I'm going to keep working hard and try to win it," Letang said. "Right now it's not my priority, but it is a little motivation. It would be fun, but at the same time I don't really want to think about it. I have to focus and make sure I do the things right."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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