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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

The NHL’s emphasis on speed and skill has turned defense into offense.

That suits Kristopher Letang just fine.

Letang, the Penguins’ 2005 third-round pick, may not have the prototypical build – 5 feet, 11 inches and 190 pounds – for defensemen in eras past. However, he possesses the ideal skills, speed and size for a defenseman in the NHL’s current environment.

“Yeah, for sure. Now, you can’t hold and you have to rely more on speed and skills,” he said. “I think I will fit perfectly in the NHL.”

The 19-year-old Montreal native is hoping to lay a solid foundation for an NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the team’s rookie camp at Mellon Arena.

“In a few years, we’re going to be a very good team. All of these guys are very good,” he said. “We’re very young, but that is good for the future.”

Letang, with his quickness and offensive proficiency, figures to be key cog of the Penguins’ future blueline. And, he is a right-handed shot, which increases his NHL value.

“I support the rush. I give a lot of first passes. I am very offensive and I can work hard along the boards,” he said. “I like to play a good two-way game; I am physical in my own zone, but I am better at offense, so I need to work on my defense.”

Letang increased his production last season with Val d’Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He tallied 25 goals, 43 points and 156 penalty minutes in 60 games during the 2005-06 campaign. Those numbers far surpass the 13 goals, 19 assists and 79 PIMs he contributed in 2004-05.

“Last year, I had a good season, but the team was not very good so it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Points are not very important – how you play is the most important. I need to work on my defense. I made a good progression on defense, but I still need to work hard and continue progressing.

“I was good last year, but now I am more confident. Since I have worked on my defense, maybe I am better this year.”

In addition, Letang played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships last winter. He was a key part of the squad’s drive to the gold medal. He tallied three points (1+2) and was steady throughout the tournament. Letang and his fellow blueliners were strong in their final two games as Canada beat Finland, 4-0, in the semifinals and Russia, 5-0, in the final.

“It was awesome,” he said. “It was a very exciting thrill.”

Shutting out the Russian squad was quite impressive given the fact that Evgeni Malkin was in the lineup.

“Malkin was very good. He was part of our game plan,” Letang said. “The defensemen have to keep their eyes on him all the time.”

Now, Letang gears up across the locker room from Malkin, Pittsburgh’s 2004 first-round pick, at Penguins rookie camp. It is likely the two will share a locker room for many years in the future, too.

“It’s better for me,” Letang said with a laugh. “When he plays against me, it’s harder for me. When he is with me, it’s better for me. He’s a very good hockey player.”

Malkin and Letang are just two of the highly-talented players in the Penguins’ organization.

“You look around and see Malkin, [Jordan] Staal, all these guys,” Letang said. “I just look at doing my job and that’s all.”

Offense has always been Letang’s preferred job. After all, he grew up idolizing Mario Lemieux.

“When I was younger, I was a forward and it was Mario who I wanted to emulate,” he said. “I was a big fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins. When I became a defenseman, I tried to play like [Tampa Bay’s] Dan Boyle and [Anaheim’s] Scott Niedermayer.

“Now, I need to make my place here.”

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