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Penguins' Letang ready to start anew, in good health

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Kris Letang's tumultuous 2013-14 season is no secret.

Injuries and health issues plagued the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, including a stroke in January. When he was healthy, planned partner Rob Scuderi was not. His play regressed as he fought to stay on the ice long enough to gain any traction. He was not the same player he was a season prior, when he was a Norris Trophy finalist.

But that doesn't matter to Letang now. He finished the Stanley Cup Playoffs strong, paired alongside defenseman Paul Martin, and wants to carry that play into the start of this season.

"It's all new, so obviously I'm going to adapt to what [coach Mike Johnston] is asking me to do," Letang said. "And obviously bring all my skills and all my assets that I can bring, but at the same time I have to get into the mix of a new coach and a new system. So it's all about process.

"It was a rough year. Tough for me and my family. I went through a hard summer, really hard workouts, and was testing myself to the limit and all of the results are good, so I'm happy to be here and looking forward to a great season."

The 27-year-old missed 45 games last season. He played in just two more games than he had in the lockout-shortened season prior. Letang, one of the NHL's better offensive-defensemen when healthy, still scored a career-high 11 goals, but had just 11 assists, his fewest since 2007-08.

Much of Letang's struggles were due to a lack of consistency surrounding him and those he was expected to play alongside. Even when he was in the lineup, Letang normally didn't have a consistent partner and was never able to jell with Scuderi.

With each healthy, Letang and Scuderi could get a second chance at building a shutdown pair with an explosive edge, which Scuderi would welcome.

"Kris is a tremendous defenseman when he's playing defense, and when he has those opportunities he's got every skill you could ever want for a D joining the play," Scuderi said. "And I think, on paper and from observation, our games match to be a good complement, but it's up to us to put in the work and make it smooth on the ice.

"I think if they give us the chance in the preseason and practices and stuff, I think eventually we'll get it down."

Following the Penguins' first training camp practice on Sept. 19, Letang, who is one of Pittsburgh's better-conditioned athletes, sat noticeably out of breath following a lengthy series of wind sprints Johnston led at the end of the session.

Letang welcomed this intense style of training, complimenting Johnston's ability to push the players' limits and his trust that they won't break. He said he appreciates his new coach's tendency to speak to a player directly and then leave it to the player to meet Johnston's expectation.

That was his impression of Johnston on the ice, but Letang also had a chance to become acquainted with him over the summer, when Johnston met with him as he had several other players.

Kris Letang
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 22
SOG: 108 | +/-: -8
"When a coach reaches out to you to meet and get to know you before the play, he just doesn't really worry about what I'm doing on the ice, he knows what I'm capable of doing," Letang said. "But he wants to know me as a person. What are my goals, what is my personality, and I think it's huge.

"We didn't talk much about hockey, we just talked about ourselves, our past and where we come from."

The Penguins lost two vocal leaders during the offseason. Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen each signed with the Washington Capitals and left a void not only on the ice, but in the locker room.

Scuderi and Martin will continue to be veteran leaders, but as the face of Pittsburgh's defense entering his ninth season, Letang is expected to take the helm.

"I've been a big fan of Kris' and how he plays the game," Johnston said. "I think he's a real young, up-and-coming defenseman. He's established himself in the League, but I think he can go a lot further."

And Letang said he will not back away from a leadership role.

"I'm at the point in my career and my age where I need to bring that aspect in the room," Letang said. "[I need to] take more plays, maybe take some young guys under my wing and make sure they follow the right footstep."

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