After Todd Reirden joined the Pittsburgh coaching staff as an assistant in the summer of 2010, he met with then 23-year-old defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang had just come off a season where he scored just three goals and 24 points and had a minus-7 rating through 73 games. He knew he could be better. He wanted to be better.
But in that meeting, Letang and Reirden decided that the defenseman would work to improve and develop his game with a bigger challenge in mind: being one of the league’s best. They came up with a plan that consisted of a series of smaller goals designed to eventually get him to the ultimate one.
Letang got started right away, going on to have a breakout 2010-11 season where he earned Norris Trophy buzz with the way he played. He doubled his production, scoring eight goals and 50 points in 82 games, and was overwhelmingly voted to the 2011 NHL All-Star Game via fan balloting – finishing second only behind teammate Sidney Crosby despite having to be a write-in candidate.
Letang, now 26, has only continued to progress and mature since then, and his and Reirden’s plan is close to fruition. It’s only a matter of time before Letang wins his first Norris Trophy, and this could be the year.
That’s because today, three years later, Letang was named as one of three finalists for the award for the first time in his career. The Norris Trophy, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position. The other candidates are Montreal’s P.K. Subban and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter.
“It’s been a long process,” Letang said. ”I mean, three years (ago), me and Todd met and came up with a plan to become one of the best defensemen. We went through some steps and tried to get better with off-ice training, video sessions and stuff like that.”
The nomination is a testament to the commitment Letang has put in to beconsidered for this award.
“I just know the time commitment and the effort he’s put in trying to get himself here to be considered one of the top defensemen in the game,” Reirden said. “That’s the thing I could say is probably most special about him getting that nomination today. All the credit goes to Kris in regard to where he’s taken his game. It was a plan that we talked about three years ago when we first started working together. It had a number of different components to it. It wasn’t going to happen overnight, but it was something that both on and off the ice, was going to be some different things we were going to try and do. This is how we always envisioned it working out.”
The plan has three main components: video work, skill development at practice and commitment off the ice.
The coaches want their players to do individual video study only every third game or so, but Letang has daily sessions. He and Reirden pore over footage of his own games and others to learn the right habits.
“Every day I’m watching videos of either the games, other players or different habits that I need to get in,” Letang said. “I think that was the overall game that we tried to work on. I watched (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Scott) Niedermayer, those guys. The way they play.”
Letang is always one of the last players off the ice for practice, working – among other skills – his shot release, defending rushes better, puck retrievals, batting pucks out of the air and his reaction time. That work ethic carries over into the gym and weight room.
The summer after his breakout 2010-11 campaign, Letang returned to his native Montreal and tweaked his offseason training regimen so he could continue playing at a high level in his expanded role. He enlisted the services of Jonathan Chaimberg, a former wrestler turned respected strength coach.
Chaimberg’s experience as a wrestler and work with mixed martial arts athletes allowed him to give Letang a routine that made the defenseman grow stronger and make sure his body didn’t tire after playing long shifts or periods of time.
“In the last two summers, we’ve changed his conditioning based upon the amount of ice that he’s had,” Reirden said. “He’s made the commitment off the ice to get himself to a guy that can play 25-plus minutes without becoming fatigued.”
Taking a look at Letang’s numbers from the past three years and the steady progression is impressive. It’s most evident in a few categories, especially points per game and minutes played. In 2009-10 Letang averaged 0.37 points per game; in ‘10-11 he averaged 0.61; in ‘11-12 he averaged 0.82; and in ’12-13 he averaged 1.09. He has increased his average time on ice by 4:04 minutes in the last four seasons.
“It’s been a great story in terms of how it’s developed,” Reirden said. “It was small goals year by year, and this was something we’ve always had at the end of our plan. We weren’t sure when we were going to get there, but it was something we’ve envisioned and that we’ve been working towards and all the credit goes to Kris in this regard.”
That being said, the most impressive part about it all – a part opposing teams don’t want to hear – is that Letang is still nowhere near a finished product yet. This Norris nomination won’t cause him to relax. He still has a lot of work to do, and he is committed to putting it in to become the best defenseman he can be – the best in the NHL.