When Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins is healthy, few defensemen are more valuable from a fantasy standpoint.
So, with news that Letang has been cleared for contact entering training camp and could return for Pittsburgh's regular-season opener against the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 4, the fantasy landscape among defensemen has been altered. Letang, previously ranked 58th overall (ninth among defensemen) and safely projected for 52 points by NHL.com, now joins the top five at his position (34th overall) with higher point expectations (56).
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Letang, 30, was limited to 34 points (five goals, 29 assists) in 41 games last season because of a knee injury and missed the entire Stanley Cup Playoffs after season-ending neck surgery April 13 to repair a herniated disk. After playing 82 games in 2010-11, Letang has been limited to 304 of a possible 458 games the past six seasons because of various injuries. He's been a fantasy liability for years, and it's important to know the risk that comes with drafting him in early rounds.
But fantasy draft decisions are largely based on the upside surrounding each player in the scope of his position. That's where the potential reward of selecting Letang comes into play.
In the 304 games since 2011-12, Letang has 257 points (58 goals, 199 assists) and is plus-52 with 105 power-play points. He has the second-best point-per-game average (0.85) among defensemen in that span behind Erik Karlsson (0.91) of the Ottawa Senators. Last season, Letang ranked fourth in points per game (0.83) behind Brent Burns (0.93) of the San Jose Sharks, Karlsson (0.92) and Victor Hedman (0.91) of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Video: Kris Letang takes the No. 8 spot
And Letang has proven in the past that he doesn't even need to play a full season to finish among the elite fantasy assets. Two seasons ago, he finished third among defensemen in scoring (NHL career-high 67 points) and 14th overall in Yahoo even though he missed 11 games. Letang is similar to his teammate, center Evgeni Malkin, in that he'd have as high a fantasy ceiling as anyone at his position if injuries were off the table.
Speaking of injuries, Karlsson (foot surgery) hopes to start skating within 2-3 weeks but could miss the start of the regular season. The top fantasy defenseman when healthy, Karlsson has a Yahoo average draft position (18.4) that is second among defensemen behind Burns (6.7), and slightly ahead of Hedman (20.5) and Dustin Byfuglien (25.2) of the Winnipeg Jets. Letang's ADP should be on the rise from its current figure (39.0; sixth among 'D'), and he could feasibly pass Roman Josi (35.0; fifth) of the Nashville Predators soon.
Letang has a long list of injuries and health concerns in recent years compared to Karlsson, but looks to be the bigger fantasy bargain based on ADP. The Penguins are coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, Letang has had plenty of rest in his recovery, and is a first power-play fixture with forwards Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. It also helps that Letang's frequent defense pair, Brian Dumoulin, signed a six-year contract to remain with the Penguins on July 24.
Karlsson and Josi face uncertainty in their defense pairs; Marc Methot was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft and then traded to the Dallas Stars on June 26, and Josi won't have Ryan Ellis (knee surgery; could miss several months). The Senators and Predators, two teams the Penguins defeated in their run to another championship last season, do not have scoring depth that compares to the Penguins, either.
To land Karlsson in fantasy, you'll have to reach much higher than you would for Letang. Even though the injury risk surrounding Letang as a fourth-round pick is concerning, it may be even more risky to reach for Karlsson two rounds earlier. Other than Burns, Hedman and Byfuglien, who are healthy and elite category coverage assets, Letang is now the next best option at the position.
The health of Letang also impacts the value of Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, whose first power-play usage would diminish if the former stays healthy for even close to a full season. That said, Schultz (ADP: 84.8; 19th among 'D') has a 35-40-point floor and would be well worth a middle-round pick if Letang misses time again.