This morning, general manager Jim Rutherford repeated a comment he made earlier in the year – that he wouldn’t trade Kris Letang for any other defenseman in the league.
“That’s how much I think of him,” Rutherford said. “He’s really a special person and he loves the game of hockey. He does what it takes to be successful. He responds properly. He’s been the guy who’s had some real serious injuries over his career. He was determined to keep going, and what you see on the ice is what everybody sees – a guy that can play 30 minutes or more.
“He’s in great shape and can adjust to however the game is being played. He’s just one of the great defensemen in the game and a true pro.”
When that comment was relayed back to Letang, he smiled.
“It feels good,” Letang admitted. “It’s fun when you have the confidence of management and the coaches. It’s fun when they see you as a go-to guy on the ice for them.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by many throughout the league, even though Letang (somehow) wasn’t named a finalist for the Norris Trophy – which is awarded to the league’s best defenseman. Regardless, Letang appreciates having his name in the conversation because it proves that he’s doing something right.
“It’s not so much about what people say, it’s about becoming the best,” he said. “Obviously if your name is thrown in the conversation for the Norris or the best defenseman or whatever they call you, it’s always fun because you work to get better and better every year and obviously my goal is to be one of the best. So it’s fun when you hear your name around that.”
Coincidentally, Letang began making significant progress towards his current position a few years ago – when the Pens and Lightning first met in the postseason back in 2011. He’s made the most of the time that’s passed since and used it to become Pittsburgh’s leader on the back end.
“I think it just came with age and with experience,” Letang said. “I’m a different type of guy. I’m not a big vocal guy, but I’m a guy that goes on the ice and I want to show an example and work hard and stuff like that.”
Back then, on the other blue line Victor Hedman was just a 20-year-old kid in just his second NHL season best known for knocking Sidney Crosby out of the lineup earlier that year, forcing the Pens captain to miss the series.
Now, the 25-year-old is continuing along the same career path as Letang in terms of becoming one of the league’s elite defensemen.
“I don’t think it was a bad hit,” Crosby said Thursday. “He’s just a big guy and given my situation at the time, it was just one of those things that happened. It wasn’t much of a play. I think that he was (always) going to be the defenseman that he is now. I think a lot of people saw that in him. He’s got all the tools. He’s a great skater, he’s physical and he’s a big strong guy.”
Both players have been tremendous for their respective teams so far this postseason.
Letang played over 30 minutes in four of his five appearances in the Second Round against Washington, including a regulation career-high 35:11 in Game 2. He finished with a plus-3 rating and three assists while being matched up against Alex Ovechkin, the NHL’s best goal scorer.
That’s all after he led Pens defensemen in scoring during the First Round against the New York Rangers with five points (1G-4A). Letang said that for him, both series were completely different – which speaks to Rutherford’s assessment of his ability to adjust when needed.
“The Rangers was more a series where they had even lines and I could play more of a two-way game,” Letang explained. “When we played against Washington, I was matching up against Ovechkin. So you have to be aware of him on the ice all the time and have to play a strong 5-on-5 game, especially defensively. You look for offense when you have a chance, but it was just different series.
“I think moving forward and facing Tampa Bay, it’s going to be another big matchup series. They have a lot of good players.”
Hedman thrived in his matchup during the Second Round against the New York Islanders. The second overall pick in the 2009 draft was tasked with defending John Tavares – who was chosen first that year. And he did a brilliant job, holding the Islanders captain without a point in the final four games as the Lightning eliminated them in five.
But for as strong as he was in his own end, Hedman was perhaps even more dominant at the other end of the ice – racking up four goals and eight points. After being held to a pair of assists in the second round, Crosby knows it’s not going to get any easier for him moving forward –especially with a player like that on their blue line.
“He’s a big guy so he’s able to get good position in front of the net,” Crosby said. “He’s got a long reach and he’s good offensively so he can make some plays to get himself out of trouble. He’s definitely a guy that’s a big part of their team and plays a lot of minutes and someone we’re probably going to see a lot of.”
Hedman is a forward’s nightmare as he’s the perfect combination of size – measuring 6-foot-6 and 223 pounds – and speed.
“He’s really big and really mobile on his skates, that’s why he makes them so good,” said fellow Swede Patric Hornqvist, who was his teammate at the 2012 World Championship. “He likes to get in on the rush. We always have to make sure we backtrack on him, stop on him and then finish every check we can on him too. It’ll be a hard challenge for us.”
That same sentiment was echoed by Hedman.
“We know we’re up for a tough challenge, the toughest one so far,” he said. “We just got to make sure we focus on what we want to do out there and make sure we execute.