Kris Letang has always worked to emulate retired Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom on the ice.
Now Letang has the chance to start emulating Lidstrom in the trophy case.
Today the Penguins blueliner was named as one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy for the first time in his career. The award, 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.
Letang is vying to join Randy Carlyle (1981) as the only other defensemen in Penguins history to capture the Norris Trophy.
“I’m honored to be nominated by all of the people that voted for me,” Letang said. “I think it’s a good accomplishment. I think it’s a team thing. I’m thankful of the organization, the guys that are surrounding me on the team, like (Sidney Crosby), (Evgeni Malkin), all those guys. It’s based on teamwork.”
Letang finished the regular season as the NHL’s leading scorer among defensemen (tied with Subban) with 38 points despite being limited to just 35 games played. Letang’s 33 assists and 25 even-strength points were tops among NHL blueliners.
Letang was the only NHL blueliner to average a point per game or better (1.09). He became the first Penguins defenseman to lead his position in scoring since Paul Coffey did so in 1989-90.
Letang’s numbers are dazzling, and an impressive part of his season. His ability to contribute offensively has always been something to marvel at. Letang’s exceptional, virtually incomparable skating ability allows him to break the puck out of the zone and help the Penguins get established in the offensive zone; while his vision, instincts and creativity allow him to distribute the puck and make plays.
He is a key component of Pittsburgh’s power play, averaging 4:37 minutes per game on the man-advantage in the regular season. When Letang missed six straight games from March 28 to April 9 with a lower-body injury, it struggled with him out – going 1-for-12 during that stretch. He returned to the lineup April 11 vs. Tampa Bay, and it was remarkable how much of a difference his presence made on the man-advantage as Pittsburgh went 3-for-6 on the power play that game.
“I think his power play has gone to a different level this year in particular,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He's a guy who's running it back there. It's gone to another level as well.”
We could keep talking about Letang’s capacity to contribute on offense. But the Norris Trophy is given to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position. And Letang most certainly does. When he returned in that game against the Lightning, he was welcomed back effusively not just for his power-play ability, but to make a difference 5-on-5 in a tough matchup against one of the league’s premier offensive teams and to shut down their top guys. That’s something he’s done all season. He’s also contributed on the penalty kill, averaging 2:12 shorthanded minutes per game during the regular season.
“I think if you look at the games where he's entered back into our lineup, the impact he's had is so noticeable,” Bylsma said. “You can defend and put six guys out there that do a good job, but his impact is almost immediate when he gets back in the game. I think his all-around game, not just the defending part of it, but his ability to impact the game, is tremendous.”
But, as Bylsma added, "Kris plays his best hockey when he goes over the boards to defend first. Early on that was his main focus when he talked about his game. He's done a great job of that. He does it both physically and with his skating ability. His skating is right up there second to none with how he can skate.”
That’s what’s most important to him. The points are nice, but they come as a result of playing the right way.
“You need to play in every situation. I think that’s the main thing,” Letang said. ”Obviously play against the top line every night. I think that’s the ultimate goal for every defenseman – to play in every situation, being on the PK, power play, play against top lines and being proud of playing well defensively.”
Letang, who turned 26 on April 25, has developed into a complete defenseman in his sixth NHL season. There is no question he has always possessed the raw skill a Norris Trophy winner needs. But what is truly special about him is he has the work ethic, too. And it’s why he’s been able to put it all together to be a total package, strong in all other facets of the game.
Letang led the team and ranked seventh in the NHL with an average of 25:38 minutes per game, while his plus-16 rating tied for eighth among defensemen.
That amount of ice time is a telling statistic when it comes to Letang. Not only can he handle exhausting workloads – which tend to end up being more in the 30-minute range – but he has the conditioning to sustain a high level of play throughout them, playing tough defense in his own end while being able to skate up and contribute on offense. That makes him the type of player the coaching staff always sends over the boards in big games and big situations because of how valuable he is on both ends of the ice.
And that’s something he’s worked for. During the season he puts in endless hours of video study and on-ice work with Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, regardless of how well he plays (more on the process here). And that dedication doesn’t stop in the summers, as Letang sweats through rigorous offseason training regimens that allow him to maintain his elite strength and conditioning.
“He’s had an outstanding season,” Reirden said. “I just think it’s his overall game that has allowed him to be included in the conversations with some of the better guys in the league, for sure. I think his ability to defend and break pucks out is a huge part of our team success. I think additionally, his maturity with his puck management has really allowed us to be able to play the type of offensive game that we want to play.”
So to recap: Letang finished the regular season as the NHL’s leading scorer among defensemen (tied with Subban) with 38 points despite missing 10 games due to injury/illness. Letang led the team and ranked seventh in the NHL with an average of 25:38 minutes per game, while his plus-16 rating tied for eighth. He not only averaged 4:37 power-play minutes, but also spent 2:12 minutes per game on the penalty kill. He was counted on during 5-on-5 play to match up against opposing team’s top players. Letang ranked third on the team with 59 blocked shots and also threw 45 hits.
Sounds like a defenseman that demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position. Sounds like a Norris Trophy winner.